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"Dress optional"?

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Title:
"Dress optional"? the discourse of clothes in the novels of Barbara Pym
Creator:
Sanford, Rhonda Lemke
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Language:
English
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vi, 100 leaves : ; 29 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Clothing and dress in literature ( lcsh )
Clothing and dress in literature ( fast )
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Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 99-100).
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, English.
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Rhonda Lemke Sanford.

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Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
30696519 ( OCLC )
ocm30696519
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1993m .S26 ( lcc )

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Full Text
DRESS OPTIONAL"?: THE DISCOURSE OF CLOTHES
IN THE NOVELS OF BARBARA PYM
by
Rhonda Lemke Sanford
B.A., University of Colorado, 1975
M.B.A., University of Colorado, 1988
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
English
1993


1993 by Rhonda Lemke Sanford
All Rights Reserved


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Rhonda Lemke Sanford
has been approved for the
Department of English
by


Sanford, Rhonda Lemke (M. A., English)
"Dress Optional"?: The Discourse of Clothes in the Novels of Barbara Pym
Thesis directed by Professor Mary Rose Sullivan
ABSTRACT
In the novels of Barbara Pym, the language of clothes is used to provide an
alternative system of communication among characters and between characters and
the reader. In particular, Pym uses clothing to communicate a sexuality in her
female characters which frequently subverts the representation which the character
consciously chooses for herself. The novel of manners is a uniquely appropriate
forum for the language of clothes since the trivial details of life are of paramount
importance here.
Clothes are used by Pym to communicate a characters own sexuality, to
define her relationship toward others, to underscore a subtle sexual tension that
pervades these otherwise prudish novels, and even to affirm the importance of self-
esteem and clothing in issues of mental and sexual health. As characters are
analyzed in a psychoanalytical vein, it becomes clear that Pyms rather detailed
descriptions of clothing serve a more consequential purpose than might be readily
apparent. Belinda and Harriet Bede, for example, are sisters with different stances
toward clothes and toward romance; Leonora Eyre is a woman for whom clothes
IV


and image become more important than relationships, and Mildred Lathbury is a
spinster who realizes that by changing her colorless image she can enter the realm
of sexuality.
Borrowed clothing and second hand clothing only confuse issues of
identity, sexuality, and communication. Making and caring for clothes, too, are
important in delineating the health of certain relationships, and sartorial rivalry
frequently mirrors other rivalries. The seductive aspects of some rather unlikely
articles of footwear, underwear, and nocturnal wear are explored. And finally,
letting go of old identities and fantasies by discarding clothes is seen to be
essential to mental health.
Barbara Pym observes the manners of modern England much like the
anthropologists who populate her novels. With a keen eye to details and an acute
sense of the communicative aspects of clothing, Barbara Pym demonstrates that the
seemingly trivial realm of clothing is no "trifling matter" at all.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Signed , .v , , , c
Mary Rose Sullivan
v


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION ................................................1
2. CLOTHES COMMUNICATING CHARACTER .............................4
Belinda and Harriet Bede: First Impressions .................5
Leonora Eyre: All Is Vanity.................................12
Mildred Lathbury: The Quintessential Excellent Woman ........20
3. OTHER PEOPLES CLOTHES .....................................29
Appropriating Constance Drivers Clothes....................29
Winifred Malory: A Woman with No Clothes of Her Own..........34
Borrowing Clothes: Sophia and Penelope.................... 39
Evangelizing With Clothes: Clothes and Christianity ....... 43
4. CLOTHES AND RELATIONSHIPS ..................................46
Henry and Agatha: Mothballs in Paradise ....................46
Making and Caring for Clothing and Maintaining Relationships.52
Sartorial Rivalry ..........................................57
5. SEDUCTIVE ASPECTS OF CLOTHING ..............................66
Footwear in Some Tame Gazelle ..............................66
Underclothes and Nocturnal Clothes .........................76
Makeup .....................................................80
6. LETTING GO ................................................ 86
Letting Go of Unwanted Clothing: Jumble ....................86
Letting Go of Fantasies ....................................89
Letting Go of Reality ......................................94
CONCLUSION .......................................................97
WORKS CITED ......................................................99
vi


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Clothes are an important system of communication. Alison Lurie suggests,
in The Language of Clothes, that "human beings have communicated with each
other first in the language of dress" and that before uttering a word we announce,
by what we are wearing, information about our "occupation, origin, personality,
opinions, tastes, sexual desires and current mood" (3). We may not consciously
be aware of the messages we are sending or receiving; nevertheless, the
information is registered and "by the time we meet and converse we have already
spoken to each other in an older and more universal tongue" (3). And Amy Levin
points out, "the language of clothes is intended to be subtle; their function is to
communicate and draw attention by covering, not by exposing" (Levin 306).
This idea of clothing as language has received little attention in the realm
of literature. Roland Barthes, in The Fashion System, acknowledges that
descriptions of clothing from literature are "important in a number of great
authors," but are too fragmentary for his study; instead, he chooses to study
"Fashion" as described in fashion magazines. Alison Luries The Language of
Clothes, which also largely omits the study of clothes in literature, deals with
1


"clothes" more than with the "fashion"/"Fashion" of Barthes and seems more
applicable to a study of Barbara Pyms novels.
Writers use clothing in various ways. Shakespeare uses clothing as
synecdoche, for example, when Henry V says, "This new and gorgeous garment,
majesty / Sits not so easy on me as you think" (2 Henry 4, 5.2.44-45). Edmund
Spenser clothes each of his vices in The Faerie Queene so that the reader can more
easily envision them and feel the stigma attached to them (Book I, Canto iv,
stanzas 18-35). Honore de Balzac, among others, uses description of clothing to
allow us to visualize a character, but lends the same depth of description to
architecture and locale as a quick perusal of the first few pages of Pere Goriot
reminds us. Others, such as Dickens and Fanny Burney, use clothing to heighten
comedic effect and, of course, for many authors clothing is not important at all.
But clothing is especially important in Barbara Pyms novels, in which the
ordinary details of everyday life have significance for the characters and the
development of the plot. Food, for example, has been noted by several critics as
an important theme or leitmotif in Pyms novels, and some critics mention clothing
in passing, but few have delved into the meaning or the language of the clothing in
the novels. Katherine Anne Ackley devotes a few pages to clothes in The Novels
of Barbara Pym, saying that "Pyms attention to such details as clothes and food is
consistent with her belief in the importance of small details" and "while such
2


matters are seemingly superficial trivialities, they very often reflect character and
indicate levels of self-esteem (16). Amy Levin has written in "Borrowed
Plumage" about the relationship between sisters in several novels, including
Pyms, a relationship which is frequently centered around the battleground of
fashion. What we find when reading Pyms novels with the language of clothes in
mind is a deep texture and richness of communication that adds to the
interpretation of characters and plot of these novels.
The following analysis of Pyms discourse of clothes is by no means
exhaustive. I have not cited every instance of clothing that Pym employs but have
tried to pick both typical and atypical characters and situations, as well as trends
that occur across several novels in order to show how Pym uses the strong
communicative power of clothing. In Pyms novels, clothing communicates at
various times a characters level of self-esteem, stance toward love, attitude toward
sexuality, and even a characters descent into madness. Barbara Pym invites us to
explore the meaning of clothing in her novels when she includes the sartorial quip
"dress optional," in an invitation to a learned society event; the implication that
anything from nudity on up is acceptable: the prominence of anthropologists
studying primitive societies, and Pyms concomitant study of the interactions of
the less primitive English society invite a closer look at just what Pym is doing
with clothing in her novels.
3


CHAPTER 2
CLOTHES COMMUNICATING CHARACTER
Although many authors use clothing and appearance to help the reader
picture a character, Barbara Pym goes further, using clothes to help us to know
the character and to understand not only his or her stance toward fashion, but his
or her attitude toward involvement in life, posture toward his or her own
sexuality, and participation in relationships with others. In Leonora Eyre of The
Sweet Dove Died (1978), Pym gives us a character obsessed with appearances; in
Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women (1952), we have a character whose sexual
awakening is reflected in her new found interest in her clothes. With two
characters in Some Tame Gazelle (1950), the sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede,
Pym reveals their relationship toward each other, and, quite interestingly, their
relationships with the opposite sex, by the clothes they choose to wear, the clothes
they make for others, and their observations about clothing. In the following
section, we will examine their outward appearances and their stance toward
fashion as a reflection of the sexuality of each.
4


Belinda and Harriet Bede: First Impressions
When Pym introduces us to Harriet Bede, she is wearing only a "celanese
vest and knickers," standing in a room in which the drapes arent drawn where, as
her sister Belinda reminds her, "anyone might see into the room!" (9).
Immediately we know that Harriet lacks a certain modesty that Belinda feels is
appropriate. Equally inappropriate, according to Belinda and some of the gossips
of the parish, is Harriets habit of "cherishing young clergymen" (7); thus, as she
stands in her underwear near the open drapes, we have to wonder, along with
Robert Emmet Long, .if what she really wants is to offer herself to men in a
physical and sexual way (Long 26).
By recreating Harriets clothing, that is by dressing her, we learn a lot
about her. First of all, the underwear she is standing around in is hardly
Fredericks of Hollywood, and over it, she will don her roll-on corset because she
likes to wear her clothes tight. In the bathtub, she is described as looking like a
fat porpoise splashing around, and several times in the novel, she has to have the
seams let out of her dresses. But Harriet needs something to hold her in more
than just the physical sense; she needs something to keep her from being too
"blunt" in her conduct with others. Her corsets serve the purpose of holding her
in in a physical way and are a reflection of the way her sister tries to hold her in
check in other ways. Harriet wants to present herself in the best possible light,
5


even if it means resorting to artificial means to do it. Her corsets enable her to
wear her clothes tight and to expose her figure, but with this and that tucked in,
firmed up, and covered over, the image she presents is a false one. Twice in the
novel, Harriet is caught by unexpected guests at the tasks of "strengthening"
corsets with elastic thread (74, 133). On both occasions, she bundles the corsets
under an armchair cushion since it would be embarrassing to be caught at this
task; nevertheless, we might almost expect Harriets "blunt jolly manner" to rise
above the situation. Surely people can tell that she wears corsets, but perhaps she
doesnt want others to know the extent to which she relies on their strength. That
strength is called on in the realm of sexuality because it seems that Harriets corset
is almost like a shield of armorprotecting her from the onslaught of the world
and, particularly, from men; after all, its hard to be intimate when wearing a
corset. Harriet has chosen a life of spinsterhood and her corsets comfort her in
that choice; they embrace her, support her, and hold her-even when no one else
does.
Harriets first fully-clothed appearance is for a dinner in honor of the new
curate. Pym describes her entrance:
radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body.
The background was the green of the jungle, the biossoms were crimson
and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in a fat
Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to
supper. (11)
6


Pyms use of "rioted suggests what occurs at a mob scene, a large crowd, a
disturbance, a disorder, or wild, loose or unrestrained activity. Here the print of
Harriets outerwear indeed clashes with her body held in by the corset; the tropical
flowers and the bright colors, representing Harriets "untamed" nature (the nature
that positioned her in front of the window in her undies) fights against her more
suitable, more presentable behavior. Pym uses Harriets outfit to show us what
the tradition of entertaining and spoiling curates brings out in her, already shown
as too vain to wear her glasses in front of a man who is young enough to be her
son, wearing flashy clothes and taking too long to get dressed for such an
occasion.
Harriets coats are no less showy than her dresses. She worries, for
example, over whether to wear a fur cape or a gold lame jacket to a chinch event
(40-41), both of which the reader sees are too flamboyant for such an occasion.
In the oblique battle of the sexes going on in Barbara Pyms novels, Harriet enters
the fray with not only the full armor of her corsets, but on several occasions with
the skins of dead animals as if ready to "hunt" for men. As Rupert Stonebird, a
character in Pyms An Unsuitable Attachment, remarks, "men and women may
observe each other as warily as wild animals hidden in long grass" (13). Pym
herself observes in a diary entry of December 1955:
On TV I thought that women have never been more terrifying than they are
now-the curled head ("Italian style"), the paint and the jewellery, the
7


exposed bosom~no wonder men turn to other men sometimes. (Holt and
Pym 197)
Indeed, Pym paints a picture of Harriet that is quite "terrifying" in all these animal
skins: a green suit, tor example, with a cape trimmed with monkey fur and
python-skin shoes (58), leopard-skin trim on the cuffs and pockets of a coat (73).
As the title of the novel implies, Harriet is trying to "tame" the wild beast in men,
and the dead animal "trophies she wears display her hunting prowess.
Pym reinforces Harriets stance toward clothing by creating a sartorial
rivalry between Harriet Bede and Agatha Hoccleve, the Archdeacons wife. As
Harriet gets ready for church, her priorities for fashion become clear:
On ordinary Sundays she had to look nicer than Agatha, as well as wearing
something that would cause Count Bianco to burst out into ecstatic
compliments, and she liked the curate to see that his generation still had
something to learn from hers in matters of elegance and good taste. (104)
Clearly, Harriet seeks to prove plenty merely by the way she dresses: she must
best Agatha, keep her perpetual suitor enthralled, and educate the younger
generation of clergymen.
Pym also sets up a contrast to Harriet in her sister, Belinda. With a
different attitude toward clothing, she has little to prove and is not driven to call
attention to either herself or her figure. She is prepared for neither battle nor
hunt; in love with Henry Hoccleve for thirty years and aware that she can never
have him, she nevertheless dresses as much to please Henry as herself. When
8


Henry is present, Belinda chooses pale colors because he told her thirty years ago
that he liked her in these colors. Belindas frequent choice of blue emphasizes her
loyalty and faithfulness to Henry, and perhaps a bit of lethargy and even
depression over her situation. Saving her best dresses for occasions when Henry is
present, for others she wears clothes that are just "good enough." Pym describes
Belindas clothes with little of the detail given to Harriets but always shows them
to be quite plain: a blue marocain, for example, that is "rather dim," a blue
chiffon that is "pale," a simple seed pearl brooch, unfashionable horn-rimmed
glasses, an old tweed coat; the overall effect of her clothing might be summed up
in Henrys opinion of her as a "nice peaceful creature" (146). Unlike Alexander
Popes Belinda in "The Rape of the Lock," and unlike Harriet, this Belinda does
not linger over her toilette but takes on the role of greeter and entertainer of
dinner guests awaiting an always grand entrance by Harriet.
Again, unlike Harriet, proper Belinda would never appear in her
underwear; interestingly, the only glimpse Pym gives us of her underwear is of a
hot pink vest in the knitting basket. This vivid color suggests that under her dull
exterior, Belinda has a hidden sexuality, analogous to her hidden love for Henry
must be forever suppressed. Belinda needs no corset, either for her girth nor for
the fit of her clothes. On one occasion, Miss Prior, the sewing lady, remarks that
Belinda never wears very fitting dresses-referring primarily to the cut of her
9


clothes, but Belinda is "depressed by this picture of herself in shapeless,
unfashionable garments" (48); Pyms phrasing here also implies a consciousness on
Belindas part that her clothes are not appropriate nor very communicative of her
true desires. While Belinda would never dream of wearing the sort of things that
Harriet wears, she is nevertheless aware that she is not as stylish as her sister.
The vision of Belinda in decorous blue contrasts with the initial view of
Harriet. No tropical flowers riot here: Belinda takes no risks in her clothing or in
her life; safely and hopelessly in the habit of loving an unattainable man, she has
no reason to take any risks. She knows that Henry likes her in blue so she wears
blue. Where the difference between the sisters emerges most clearly is in a
discussion of proper shoes for a garden party. Predictably, Belinda comes out in
favor of more sensible shoes, while Harriet favors more fashionable ones,
remarking, "I always think low heels are so dowdy . besides, high heels are
definitely the fashion now," over which Belinda ruminates:
Harriet always knew things like that. And yet, she thought, at our
age, surely all that was necessary was to dress suitably and if
possible in good taste, without really thinking of fashion? With the
years one ought to have grown beyond such thoughts but somehow
one never did. (32)
More than a generalized statement, the "one" that Belinda is thinking of is, of
course, Harriet; Belindas "ought to" also reflects an internalized sense of what is
proper that Belinda chooses to adhere to. Harriets high heels suggest, according
10


to critic Janice Rossen, "just how far a woman is prepared to go in order to attract
a mans notice. Comfort must often be sacrificed in order to achieve elegance"
(124-125). Despite Harriets fashion advice, Belinda sticks to her choice of
sensible shoes; but Harriets remarks have left their mark and Belinda leaves for
the garden party "conscious that she is wearing dowdy shoes" (32). Although
Harriet will be standing and working at the garden stalls most of the afternoon,
fashionable appearance takes precedence over comfort. William Rossi, in his The
Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, points out that high heels do flatter the shape of the
foot and leg, but they also accentuate voluptuousness by throwing the buttocks
back and the bust forward, and add to sex appeal by shortening the stride and
suggesting a degree of helplessness (121). Thus, Pym suggests that some of the
"thoughts" that Haniet should have "grown beyond," in Belindas view, are
unconscious thoughts about sex and sexuality. Pym again emphasizes the
difference in the sisters at church, where Belinda kneels to say a prayer while
Harriet waits "until she had arranged her bag and umbrella, removed her gloves
and loosened her silver-fox fur, and has a look around at whos there and what
they are wearing (105-106). Belinda pays attention to the purpose of the church
service while Harriet presents a running commentary on who is there and what
they are wearing. Pym has Belinda and Harriet reappear as characters in their
seventies, in An Unsuitable Attachment (1982), escorted by Father Branche who is
11


described as "a kind of tame curate of the old-fashioned type beloved by elderly
ladies (15). Clearly, taming of curates is still a hobby of Harriets as evidenced
by her ever flamboyant clothing: "a tight silk dress printed with tiger lilies," and
"very high shoes"; "the hand-knitted muffler in two shades of ecclesiastical
purple" which she is "brandishing" is that of Father Branche (166-167).
Thus, we see Pyms portrayal of sisters with markedly different postures
toward fashion and toward relationships. What is unique in her portrayal is that
the fashions that the two choose do not merely reflect the contrasting appearances
and personalities of Harriet and Belinda, but identify their individualized way of
interacting with others as well as their hopes and expectations for others
interactions with them. Pyms layering of Harriets wild floral print over the
corset tells much: the dress says "come hither" while the corset says "but not too
close." Belindas loosely fitting clothes, on the other hand, tell us that she does
not consider herself a sexual being, while her practical woolly vest nevertheless
reveals by its vivid color that passion smolders underneath her dull exterior.
Leonora Evre: All Is Vanity
Leonora Eyre, of The Sweet Dove Died, is important to any discussion of
clothes in Barbara Pyms novels. Because clothes are so important to Leonora, we
know that Pym is again signalling their importance as a sexual signifier. Leonora
12


is elegant and vain about her appearance, and distraught at evidence of the aging
progress. Her elegance is summed up in statements like, "Nobody could wear a
scarf like Leonora" (14), for example, but the young James Boyce admires her for
the "unusual and old-fashioned elegance of her wide-brimmed hat which cast
fascinating shadows on a face that was probably beginning to need such flattery"
(9).
Flattery is, in fact, something Leonora surrounds herself with, just as she
surrounds herself with the finer things, drawing her fur collar up around her neck,
not because she is chilly, but because she "likels] the feeling of fur next to [her]
face" (22). Her appearance is described in nearly every scene of which she is a
part, and Pym describes her clothes more poetically than she does others: "a soft
prune-coloured dress which suited her pale complexion and dark, well-arranged
hair" (23-24); an "amethyst-coloured dress" (47); a black lace dress in which she
looks cool and remote (100); a "raincoat like the iridescent wing of some beautiful
beetle (128). Pyms treatment of Leonoras clothes highlights for the reader
Leonoras vanity and her preoccupation with her outward elegant appearance. Her
favored colors are the purple tones of royalty which emphasize the richness and
expense of her taste.
But elegant dress is all there is to Leonora, the facade of an empty life. As
Diana Benet points out in Something to Love: Barbara Pyms Novels, "the
13


emptiness of her life is as remarkable as her seeming contentment with it" (122);
unlike many of Pyms women, Leonora has involvement with neither church, job,
nor family; her total occupation is herself and her appearance. Robert Long, too,
points out that "she cannot fix her attention for long on anything outside herself"
(Long 163). Her few friends are not especially close: "Leonora had little use for
the cosiness of women friends, but regarded them rather as a foil for herself,
particularly if, as usually happened, they were less attractive and elegant than she
was" (SDD 53). Too cold to maintain a relationship with a man, her feelings
about sexual relations are summed up by Benet: her neighbors "idea that sex is
unthinkable for her is almost accurate: she tried it a few times, disliked it, and is
hugely relieved to assume that, at her age, she need never do it again" (121).
Because of her aversion to sex, Leonora is quite unattached when she meets
James Boyce and his uncle Humphrey early in the novel. James homosexuality is
part of his appeal, eliminating the possibility of a physical relationship. And when
it becomes clear that Humphrey, the more suitable partner for Leonora, has
become interested in her sexually, Leonoras thoughts are quite revealing:
He is going to kiss me, Leonora thought in sudden panic,
pray heaven no more than that. She tried to protest, even to
scream, but no sound came. Humphrey was larger and stronger
than she was and his kiss was very different from the reverent touch
on lips, cheek or brow which was all James seemed to want. One
couldnt lose ones dignity, of course, Leonora told herself, for after
all one wasnt exactly a young girl. Surely freedom from this sort
of thing was among the compensations of advancing age and the sad
14


decay of ones beauty; one really ought not to be having to fend
people off any more. (92)
And, of course, just as Humphreys hand strays inside the neck of her dress, a
gentle knock is heard at the door, and Leonora is rescued from what, for her,
could only be disastrous. Fearing that her dress has been tom in the fray, she
finds that the stitching has only come out a bit at the shoulder seam and "could be
easily repaired" (95). As close as Humphrey ever gets to any kind of intimacy
with Leonora, this little tear in her dress has given Leonora a fright that he might
"have tom the delicate chiffon, if nothing worse, had not the gentle knocking on
the door caused its hasty withdrawal" (93). Leonora has escaped with her
"chastity" intact, and equally important, to her, with her dress unharmed. This
unsullied image is essential to Leonoras self concept and governs her responses
toward others.
Another aspect of her self-image is Leonoras desire to escape the effects of
aging. Gazing at herself in James flattering mirror and in dim light, she cant
help noticing, even here, the ravages of time showing in her face. Long explains:
Particularly through her use of symbolic imagery Pym constantly
draws the readers attention to the flawed nature of Leonoras
perfection. Leonoras bedroom contains an antique fruitwood
mirror that has a slight flaw so that "if she placed it in a certain
light she saw looking back at her the face of a woman from another
century, fascinating and ageless." But Leonora, of course, cannot
live in another century, and far from being ageless is beginning to
show the effects of time in her face. The theme of a seemingly
15


perfect object of art that reveals an unsuspected flaw is many times
reiterated. (Long 169-170)
Thus, Pym uses this imperfect mirror to emphasize Leonoras false image of
perfection in the face of real-world aging. Others too notice these signs of aging;
for example, James, on one occasion, "noticed for the first time some new lines
on her beautiful neck, and he took her arm rather gently, as if she were some old
fragile object that needed careful handling" (SDD 69). While James reacts to her
as an "old fragile object," Leonora refuses to acknowledge that at over fifty, she is
not a suitable partner for James, twenty-five years her junior.
With high standards for herself, Leonora shows contempt for anyone who
doesnt measure up to these standards, including the younger generation who
"dressed most unsuitably for town" (90), or the country resident who is not
sufficiently elegant for Leonoras standards: "Leonora took up the challenge by a
cool appraisal of the womans clothes-cotton dress, bare legs and canvas sandals
did one have to dress like that in the country?" (116). The contrast between
Leonoras chic and the inability of others to match her sartorially is manifested in
the difference between James Phoebe, "shy [and] on the defensive in her odd
clothes," and Leonora, "cool, poised and exquisitely dressed" (76).
Leonora may be able to quell the competition from Phoebes quarter, but
she is no match for Ned who "steals" James away from her, and sees her for what
she is on their first meeting:
16


And now Ned was looking at her in a most curious way. His eyes
moved from her face, down over her body and legs; even her feet
did not escape his scrutiny. She was reminded of the way a certain
type of man, particularly, perhaps, a foreigner, would undress
you with his eyes, as the old-fashioned saying put it, except that
Neds appraisal was completely lacking in sexuality or desire. But
after a while Leonora realised what he was doingsimply calculating
the cost of her clothes and everything about her, including her
hairstyle, make-up, jewellery, and even her shoes. (145)
Ned then touches her sleeve with the tip of his finger, and asks in a "sinister" way
if is "wild silk," adding that Jimmie always said she had beautiful clothes. While
most people would be incensed by his evaluating gaze, "the words were flattering"
to Leonora who "loved compliments" (145). In fact, she has to remind herself
that "however charming he might appear this young man wanted to take James
away from her and she was not going to let him" (145). Neds coldly calculating
type of gaze does not occur elsewhere in Pyms novels and alerts the reader to
Pyms use of Leonora as a woman who places too much emphasis on her
appearance. That Leonora chooses to be flattered rather than insulted by Neds
estimation of her worth by way of the cost of her clothes is yet another indication
of Leonoras inability to see beyond so-called "compliments" the underlying
message: she is nothing but her clothes and Ned sees this and evaluates her
accordingly.
Finally realizing that Ned wields a power over James with which she
cannot hope to compete, Leonora contemplates a sort of compromise "whereby
17


Ned could be woven into the fabric of their lives in such a way that he became an
unobtrusive thread in the harmonious tapestry of the whole" (151). Even here,
Leonora makes the analogy that relationships are just like clothesmade of
"fabric, "woven" in such a way that Ned becomes a mere "unobtrusive thread."
But such a compromise is impossible because
when [Ned] came into the room he immediately took the center of
the stage, the glitter of his personality making Leonora no more
than an ageing overdressed woman ... it occurred to her that when
it came to weaving people into the fabric of ones life he had
perhaps stolen a march on her. (151-152)
Pyms use of "weaving," "tapestry," and "thread demonstrate her deftness in the
imagery of clothing.
But in the end, Leonoras clothes offer her little protection from the world.
When a woman clearing off tables in a restaurant piles dirty dishes and food scraps
on Leonoras table, Leonora finds little consolation as she "turned her head away
and huddled into her fur coat, feeling herself debased, diminished, crushed and
trodden into the ground, indeed brought to a certain point of dilapidation" (184).
The fur she had once turned to for comfort against her face, now proves
inadequate against the hurts of the world. As Long puts it:
Having viewed herself as standing elegantly apart from the world,
she finds that she is after all, vulnerable, and cannot avoid the
wounding that is part of human involvements. As life breaks in
upon her fragile illusions, she is repeatedly humiliated. (Long 166)
18


But this "humiliation" does not bring Leonora into the human race; when she
begins to feel warmth for her cousin Daphne in the next scene, she recognizes the
feeling as a "danger signal" (SDD 186). Finally, Leonora does not forgive James,
but treats him with cool civility, not wanting to be like her friend Meg who is
constantly hurt by the uncertainty of her liaison with a homosexual man. Instead,
Leonora looks forward to the arrival of Humphrey with flowers that were seen as
"perfect" because of "the added grace of having been presented to oneself" (208).
And not surprisingly, she loses James and ends up alone with nothing by the
meager consolation of a Spring shopping spree.
Leonora does not change in the course of the novel, as Benet points out,
The Sweet Dove Died "is about the testing of Leonora, as first love and then
misery present her with the choice of joining or rejecting the imperfect world and
human race" (Benet 120). Pym shows Leonora reaffirming perfection of
appearance at every turn, in her rejecting of Humphreys sexual advances which
would at the very least rumple her clothes, in her judgement of the younger
generation and of those from the country, and in her consolation of a new
wardrobe. Thus, Leonoras clothes do not just manifest her personality, they are
her personality, they are her essence.
19


Mildred Lathhurv: The Quintessential Excellent Woman
! !
1
: i
i I
! 1
I i
Unlike Leonora, self-conscious of her attire at all times, Mildred Lathbury,
in Excellent Women (1952) takes no particular care about what she wears.
Mildred considers herself destined to be an impoverished gentlewoman one day
and her clothes reflect her low self-esteem. She wears light browns often, which
according to Lurie, are the "least communicative" colors: "People who prefer to
conceal their emotions . often wear outfits that are largely or entirely tan or
beige" (Lurie 204). Pym contrasts Mildred with Helena Napier, the hard-driving
career anthropologist. Mildred herself notes the contrast, feeling that the two of
them are "superficially at any rate," unlikely to become friendly, judging by their
appearance: Helena, she says, is "fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy
trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew
attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt" (7).
Mildred decides almost immediately that she doesnt like Helena-"with her gay
trousers and her anthropology" (12). By linking "gay trousers" and
"anthropology," Pym shows that Helenas clothing is, more than a fashion
statement, a statement that a woman can enter a male-dominated profession and
still appear feminine, but Mildred, it seems, may see Helenas clothes and career
as "unfeminine." Pym later uses Helenas clothes to break stereotypes about
I
I
20


career women: "One mustnt look like a female anthropologist," Helena explains
to Mildred (86).
Mildreds low self-esteem in contrast to Helena emerges further as she
becomes better acquainted with both Helena and her charming husband Rocky.
Preoccupied with what she should wear to a meeting of the Learned Society as the
Napiers guest, she is "anxious not to disgrace the Napiers" (86) and takes "the
bold step of buying a new hat to go with [her] brown winter coat" (86). Upon
Rockys compliment on this hat, she reflects:
I accepted the compliment as gracefully as I could, but I was
sufficiently unused to having anybody make any comment on my
appearance to find it embarrassing to have attention drawn to me in
any way. (86)
This self-effacement appears on another occasion when, invited to share some wine
with Rocky, Helena, and Everard Bone, Mildred reflects:
1 began taking off my apron and tidying my hair, apologising as I
did so, in what I felt was a stupid, fussy way, for my appearance.
As if anyone would care how I looked or even notice me, I told
myself scornfully. (34)
Judging from the kind of clothes she wears, few would "notice" Mildred. The
exact opposite of Leonora, who dressed to be noticed, Mildred reveals that
"women like me really expected very little-nothing, almost" (37) and that she is
"indistinguishable from many another woman in a neutral winter and plain hat,"
and "thankful for my anonymity" (50).
21


During the course of the novel, however, Mildred becomes increasingly
attentive to her appearance as she falls in love with Rocky Napier. Rocky
awakens Mildred to the world of emotions, even though, as Long points out "his
gallantly may be superficial ... it makes Mildred think better of herself and
stimulates her imagination" (Long 51). Her friend Dora notices the changes in
Mildreds appearance and Mildred now sees Dora in the role of "excellent
woman"a role too confining for the newly awakened Mildred. Mildred is in fact
annoyed at the plainness of her friends underwear hanging up to dry because it is
just like her own; this annoyance represents a rejection of "her old self in her
cheerfully dowdy friend," according to Diana Benet (Benet 38).
With the changes Mildred has made to her appearance, she becomes more
aware of her former sartorial deficiencies, especially when she reverts back to her
old way of dressing one day and unexpectedly confronts Everard Bone. Her self-
consciousness shows as she wants to hurry past him since she "was not very well
dressed that dayI had a lapse and was hatless and stockingless in an old cotton
dress and a cardigan" (EW139). Her co-worker, Mrs. Bonner, like Leonora
Eyre,
would have been horrified at the idea of meeting a man in such an
outfit. One should always start the day suitably dressed for
anything, she had often told me. Any emergency might arise.
Somebodyby which she meant a man-might suddenly ring up and
ask you out to lunch. Although I agreed with her in theory I found
22


it difficult to remember this every morning as I dressed, especially
in the summer. (139)
Mrs. Bonners "theory"the purpose of clothing is to be ready to meet a man-
calls attention to the mating ritual of clothes, and Mildred has now accepted this
theory, at least in part, since she is aware of the dowdiness of her dress on this
particular day, although she maintains at least part of her practical stance toward
fashion in admitting that it is difficult to maintain high standards in the summer,
for example.
In her new awakening, Mildred tries to look a little nicer than usual. For
lunching with Allegra Gray, for example, she dresses carefully and this nicer
appearance elicits comments from a co-worker that she must be having lunch with
a man (120). Of course Mildred is outdone by Allegra whose hat "with its
trimming of ffuit was smarter and more unusual" than hers with "its conventional
posy of flowers" (120). After this lunch, Mildred seems to have a new resolve
about her life; she is tired of being an "excellent woman"Allegra has announced
her engagement to Julian Malory and Mildred even takes the bold step of buying a
bright red lipstick called "Hawaiian Fire."
For dinner at Everard Bones flat, Mildred decides to experiment with her
looks. She wants to set herself up in contrast with Esther Clovis, a female
anthropologist who corrects proofs and makes indexes for Everard. Mildred
decides to make herself "look like the kind of person who could not possibly do
23


either" (248)~not an easy task since she has been so comfortable for so long with
her "ordinary appearance and her "rather uninteresting" clothes; nevertheless, the
new lipstick and a new dress "showed an attempt, perhaps misguided," she
concedes, to make herself look different (248). The new dress is black, a color
she had not worn since she was in mourning, but one she had often seen Helena
wear. An attempt to style her hair differently too, brushing it back "rather more
severely than usual" (248) fails; in the end she "looked altogether exactly the kind
of person who would be able to correct proofs or make an index" (248), but her
efforts to change her appearance represent a change of self-concept and a move
toward sexuality.
Unfortunately, her effect on others is not what Mildred would have wished;
one does not quit being an "excellent woman" overnight, it seems. Meeting her
friend William Caldicote on her way to Everard Bones house, her appearance
elicits the comment from him that she looks more triste in appearance than usual,
perhaps because of her black dress, which he describes as "sombre," When she
asks if he thinks her looks are an improvement, he replies:
"An improvement? Ah, well, 1 should hardly presume to
express that kind of an opinion. You mean an improvement on the
way you usually look? But how do you usually look? One scarcely
remembers. Where are you going now? Were you perhaps coming
to see me?" (250-251)
24


It is no small wonder that Mildred casts herself in the role of the nondescript
woman when neither her neighbor nor William can remember what her hair
usually looks like, confirming her own opinion that nobody notices her. It is also
no wonder that she has not made any earlier attempt to change her appearance
when greeted with reactions that imply that she must be pursuing men. Everard
himself, for whom she has done all of this primping, doesnt say anything about
the way she looks (252); in fact, in the course of the evening, he does ask her if
she would do his index and proofs for him. The "look" she was trying to create
obviously has failed; despite her dress, she apparently looks like a "female
anthropologist" after all.
Thus, Mildreds desire to change her stance toward life and by changing
her stance toward fashion is only a qualified success; she remains more self-
effacing than other Pym characters. By having her tell her story in the first
person-unusual for Pyms characters'-Pym makes us feel closer to Mildred than
to many of her characters, makes us privy to her insecurities and more sympathetic
toward her. Significantly, Mildred begins her story as if it were to be about
others: "I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has
no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved and interested in other
peoples business" (5). She ends up, however, having a story of her own. Her
1Only Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings are
narrated in first person.
25


revelation of her own insecurities demonstrates a kind of wit and this wit is central
to the effect of Excellent Women and our attitude toward Mildred, as she changes
from one who is constantly pouring a cup of tea at moments of tragedy in other
peoples lives, to someone who is ready to taste life for herself. When Everard
Bone asks her to do his indexing work for him, despite her best efforts to avoid
looking like a "female anthropologist," Mildreds wit is apparent as she muses:
And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink
peeling potatoes and washing; that would be a nice change when
both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth
this burden? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and
cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after
all. (255)
Although Excellent Women ends here with Mildred speculating that she "might be
going to have what Helena called a full life after all," we know from several of
Pyms later novels that Mildred marries Everard Bone, and that she does indeed do
his indexing and proofing. And, despite all her attempts to improve her looks,
people in the later novels seem only to regard her as a great help to her husband.
Nevertheless, Mildreds transformed self-concept in Excellent Women occurs
because she decides to be no longer "fussy and spinsterish" (12), but instead to
buy a new dress and lipstick, to experiment with her hairstyle, and to
communicate through her new appearance that she is ready to become a participant
rather than an observer. It doesnt really matter that these changes are not entirely
successful, in Mildreds view or that of others; significant communication between
26


Mildred and those around her takes place. Pym does not try to make Mildred
superficially like Leonora to make the point; the message is that Mildreds change
of clothes tells others that she has changed her attitude toward life and her own
sexuality.
We see in these four female characters, Harriet, Belinda, Leonora, and
Mildred, four different orientations toward fashion and toward life. Harriet Bede
loves to wear bright and showy clothes to call attention to herself and her
sexuality, yet she doesnt want men getting too close: she refuses proposals from
two men and keeps her constant suitor Count Bianco at bay in favor of doting
safely on the latest curate. Her showy clothes tell us that she thinks of herself as a
sexual being; her binding corsets counter this image. Belinda, on the other hand,
constant in her love for Henry and in her choice of clothes that are not "too
fitting," fears relationships too: if she ever acted on her love, it might disappear
altogether. Leonora Eyre, a woman for whom image is all important, shows that
a life consumed by vanity takes one out of the realm of involvement with others;
all her relationships exist only superficially, no one ever gets to the real Leonora,
under the beautiful clothes. And finally, Mildred Lathbury changes her stance
toward fashion and toward life during the course of the novel; tired of being an
observer like other "excellent women," she opts to become a participant in life.
Her new involvement with life and with sexuality begins with communicating a
27


new image through her clothes; never mind that Pym shows her attempt to be less
than successful, she is successful in communicating that she wants to change.
Although these four characters make different statements with their clothes, the
topic of the conversation is the same: how a woman feels about her own sexuality
and her relationships with others.
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CHAPTER 3
OTHER PEOPLES CLOTHES
If in Barbara Pyms novels, clothes are important in denoting character, as
we have seen with Belinda, Harriet, Mildred and Leonora, then borrowing clothes
represents a significant move toward losing ones identity and becoming someone
else. When characters borrow or appropriate anothers clothes, the results are
sometimes merely benign: the character simply doesnt look like herself anymore,
as when, in Jane and. Prudence (1953), Jane Cleveland borrows her husband
Nicholass mackintosh; she looks incongruous, as if she were trying to be someone
else. But, "since appearances are keys to . personalities" (Levin 304), wearing
someone elses clothes can be a more dangerous attempt to take on another
personality or to disguise ones own personality. Amy Levin points out that when
it comes to clothes, "loans and gifts are never simple or unemotional; around
womens garments revolve numerous questions of trust, conventionality, and
sexuality" (304).
Appropriating Constance Drivers Clothes
Like Agatha Hoccleve in Some Tame Gazelle, the deceased Constance
Driver, in Jane and Prudence, was part of a loveless marriage, and her fine
29


clothes from Marshalls and Marks and Spencers may have been her only
consolation for an openly philandering husband. After her death, Constances
clothes take on the character of a community asset which several people feel they
have a right to. Several women talk of "what a shame it was that all those good
things of poor Mrs. Drivers should be still lying in the drawers and wardrobes"
(105); going through Constances dresses and seeing that they are not wasted by
falling into disuse, in fact, becomes an important action of the novel. But these
clothes are also a symbol of Fabians role of grieving widower, even though he
showed little love for his wife while she was alive and was known for his
philandering. Jessie Morrow, in fact, says wryly that "her death came as a great
shock to him he had almost forgotten her existence" (28); nevertheless, he has
self-indulgently played up the role of grieving widower and as long as "poor
Constances" things have not been sorted and distributed, he is comfortable in that
role. But finally, a year after Constances death, Fabian agrees to allow some of
the women of the parish to sort through her things, provided that they make all of
the decisions and that he not be involved in a process which he deems to be too
painful.
Going through a dead persons clothes is an important ritual of grieving and
of letting go. This task would be "too painful" for Fabian, not because of his love
for his deceased wife, but because of his fondness for himself in the grief-stricken
30


role he has adopted to compensate for his many affairs during Constances life;
this role, in fact, offers him an expiation for the guilt he now feels for his many
affairs. Pym also shows the importance of this ritual in demonstrating the
appropriation of anothers clothes and the fact that the parish women feel they
have a right to the clothes of this dead woman. When the day of reckoning
arrives and Misses Doggett and Morrow are appointed for the task, the entire
ritual is described in detail, including their attire and their excitement over the
prospect (106). In fact, once they have arrived and greeted Fabian, their steps
"became noticeably brisker and there was an eagerness about their bearing which
they did not attempt to conceal" (107).
The two begin to sort the clothes into two categories, "distressed
gentlewomen" and "jumble," feeling that these are what "poor Constance" would
have wanted. Jane Cleveland cant stand not to be a part of the action and show
up "on the off chance of getting a bit of jumble (108). In her role of vicars
wife, Jane feels that she can carry off this pretense when actually all she wants is
to get a look at Constances things in an effort to learn something about this
woman whom she never met. Her curiosity is due, in part, to her interest in a
match between Fabian and her friend Prudence and this is Janes last chance to try
to get some sense of what Constance was like since knowledge about Constance
might be of interest to her friend. But we do not get much of a sense of
31


Constances character, except for the fact that her clothes are "very good." We
get more information about the characters of Miss Doggett, Jessie Morrow, Jane,
and Fabian Driver as they interact with each other over the legacy of Constances
clothes and decide the fate of each item.
The most important appropriation that takes place is Jessie Morrows
appropriation of Constances blue velvet dress to seduce Fabian. We know that
while Miss Morrow and Miss Doggett sorted out poor Constances clothes, Miss
Morrow "privately earmarked one or two garments for herself and planned to alter
them suitably and add them to her wardrobe" (112). Lurie points out that the
limitations of wardrobe act in the same way as a limited vocabulary when "we
cannot say what we really mean because we dont have the right words" (Lurie
34). Thus, it is Constance Drivers dress rather than one of her own that Jessie
Morrow dons when she goes to Fabians house one evening when Miss Doggett is
out. This blue velvet dress is very out of character with the rest of Jessies
wardrobe but she had, in fact, long planned on wearing this "special dress and
felt that even though it had been Fabians late wifes, with the neckline changed
and the dress altered he would not recognize it (138). But even with the neckline
changed and the other alterations, it is still Constances dress and to Jessies
surprise, Fabian remarks that Constance had a "dress rather like that once" (141).
Men may well notice more than Jessie is willing to give them credit for. Jessie is
32


already thirty-seven and knows that time is fleeting and, since a relationship has
been developing between Fabian Driver and Prudence Bates, Jessie must make a
move if, as she says, she has no intention of being a distressed gentlewoman
(125). Jessie is quite plain and not given to any vanity about her looks or her
clothes: in fact, she "was badly dressed, usually in tweeds that never been good"
(110). In contrast to Prudences first appearance in a vivid red dress, for
example, Jessie Morrow makes her first appearance in a nondescript brown (26).
Nevertheless, Jessie chooses the battleground of fashion to compete with Prudence,
who always looks like "somebody in a womans magazine" (9). Ironically, despite
her nondescript clothes, Jessie also wears a yellowish-brown fur (34) and like
Harriet Bede may seem to be on a hunt for men.
Jessie primps in front on her mirror and takes more care with her makeup
than is usual for her because she realizes that to get Fabians attention, she must
do something arresting. It is significant that she would wear a dress of Fabians
dead wife in her attempt to win him. Wearing the dress of another has its
advantages for Jessie. First of all, despite her usual dowdy appearance, she knows
that clothes are somehow important in the mating ritual. Second, she would not
feel comfortable trying to seduce a man in her usual dull clothes and she knows
that she would not be successful in those clothes her thirty-seven years have told
her that these clothes do not communicate the right message of desire. Third, she
j
1
33
1


knows that Constance had something that made her able to win Fabian, and Jessie
is hoping that that something will be transferred to her if she wears Constances
dress. And finally, she knows that she can blame the dress if the endeavor flops,
just as if she had used words that were not a part of her vocabulary.
Although Miss Doggetts impression of Jessies room is that "it seemed as
if Jessie had been in doubt as to what to wear and also as if she had taken
considerable trouble over her appearance, a thing she did not usually do" (138),
we know that Jessie always had the blue velvet dress in mind for this occasion;
however, like practicing a speech, it may have taken her several changes to he
sure of her decision and to gather up her courage. After all, wearing a blue velvet
dress to mans house in the evening (when she is neither invited nor expected) can
hardly be an ambiguous gestureespecially from a woman who usually wears
tweeds, and not good ones at that. In fact, the dress is successful and Jessie
Morrow begins a relationship with Fabian and a rivalry with Prudence Bates.
Winifred Malory: A Woman with No Clothes of Her Own
Winifred Malory, of Excellent Women, "with her eager face and untidy
grey hair" {EW 13), "worthy but uninteresting" (27), is a woman without a life of
her own. Devoted to her brother and to the church of which he is rector, she
dresses
34


in an odd assortment of clothes, most of which had belonged to
other people. It was well known that Winifred got most of her
wardrobe from the garments sent to the parish jumble sales, for
such money as she had was never spent on herself but on Goodone
could almost say LostCauses, in which she was an unselfish and
tireless worker. (13)
Winifred devotes herself to these "lost causes" and passively lets things happen to
her rather than actively shaping her own life. Robert Long summarizes: "had she
not become her brothers housekeeper, one feels that she would have no sense of
identity at all" (41). Her clothes reflect this lack of identity by having "belonged
to other people." She likes the fact that her brother is not married: it is "nicer for
[her]" she tells Mildred, although she "should have liked some nephews and
nieces" (18). It is significant here that while many women would think about
having children of their own, Winifred thinks instead of nephews and nieces,
rather than sons or daughters; she never envisions a romantic connection for
herself just as she does not have any clothes that are truly her own.
Winifred tells Mildred excitedly about wealthy Lady Farmers latest
contribution to the church jumble sale-"Such good things," she tells Mildred, "I
shall be quite set up for the spring" (18). Although the clothes were very "good,"
Mildred doubts that these clothes "would really be suitable for Winifred, who was
much thinner than Lady Farmer and hadnt her air of comfortably upholstered
elegance" (18). Pym describes the clothes as Winifred shows them to Mildred: "a
maroon embossed chenille velvet afternoon dress, for example, brings agreement
i


from Mildred that the dress was made of "lovely material, but the dress was so
completely Lady Farmer that I should have hated to wear it myself and swamp
whatever individuality I possess" (18). While Winifred plans on having the
sewing lady "take it in where its too big," it is doubtful that the dress will ever
look like anything but Lady Farmers dress. Not only does the dress look like
Lady Farmer, the fact is that Winifred lacks any occasion to wear such a dress
(18), except perhaps when people come to dinner with her brother. Trying to fit
into someone elses clothes when one has neither the personal style nor the
opportunity to wear them is inappropriate; nevertheless, Lady Farmers clothes,
like Constance Drivers in Jane and Prudence, seem to Winifred too good a
treasure to pass up. Winifreds life, it turns out, is a vicarious one: other peoples
clothes, other peoples causes, and other peoples lives are the center of her
existence. Even the poetry Winifred chooses, "a volume of Christina Rossettis
poems bound in limp green sufede" kept by her bed, and the fact that she had not
"had the experience to make those much-quoted poems appropriate" shows
Winifreds lack of a life of her own.
When the widow Allegra Gray comes to live in the apartment at the
parsonage, Winifred comes close to having her personality taken over completely
by Allegra as she tells Mildred that Allegra is going to help her with her summer
clothes. Clothes are a realm where Winifreds malleability is particularly apparent
36


to Allegra and while Mildred agrees that Allegra looks very nice, she knows that
Allegras taste in clothes is unlikely to be appropriate for Winifred. Yet Winifred
never trusts what she herself thinks about her own summer clothes. But Allegra
and her clothes selections have more serious implications since Winifred also may
lose her brother and her comfortable position in his home to Allegra. When
Allegra tells Mildred that she and Julian are to be married, she suggests that
Winifred should join a convent or live with Mildred (124-128). But Mildred
knows that allowing Winifred to live with her would be a mistake; Mildred knows
that Winifreds personality is such that once Winifred latched onto her, she would
never get away and have her home to herself again.
When Allegras treatment of Winifred becomes intolerable, Winifred comes
for aid to Mildred. Winifred is in a pitiful state when Mildred rescues her:
I drew her quickly into the hall and saw that she was soaking wet.
Then I noticed that she was wearing only a thin dress without a hat
or coat and that on her feet were what looked like bedroom slippers,
now sodden with rain. (205)
Just as Winifred is unable to protect herself from the wiles of Allegra, she proves
herself equally unable to protect herself and her clothes from the rain and is both
soaking wet and crying, much like a baby. All the truth comes out about
Allegras treatment of Winifred:
. . The little friendly criticisms, the mocking which had gradually
become less good-humoured"Winifred, you really must do
something about your clothes . Have you made any plans for
37


when Julian and I are married? Where are you going to live" . .
"Dear Winifred, youre just the kind of person who would have a
vocation I feel." (206)
Winifred had hoped that she could stay with Mildred, but Mildred muses:
I had to ask myself why it was that the thought of Winifred, of
whom I was really very fond, sharing my home with me filled me
with sinking apprehension. Perhaps it was because I realised that if
I once took her in it would probably be for ever. There could be no
casting her off if my own circumstances would change, if for
example, I ever thought of getting married myself. . (207)
Pyms use of "casting her off" is telling here, since Winifreds wearing of cast-off
clothing has now figured her as a cast off herself.
Winifred is easy prey to anyone who has any different ideas, since she has
so few of her own. Mildreds new neighbors seem fascinating to Winifred
because they are Catholic and have lived in Italy:
Winifred clasped her hands and I heard the familiar note of
enthusiasm in her voice. Looking forward a little, 1 could almost
imagine a time when Winifred might want to become a Roman
Catholic and I wondered if I should be there to help with the crisis.
(246-247)
Pym shows us in Winifred a woman without a life of her own, obsequiously trying
to please others and always attaching herself to other people and to other peoples
causes just as she attaches other peoples clothes to herself. In the end, life goes
on as before for Winifred: Allegra does not effect any sartorial changes on
Winifred and Winifred does not have to find a life of her own because Allegras
38


mistreatment of her has caused her brother to break off his engagement. But
women like Winifred, Pym seems to say, may not always be so "lucky."
Borrowing Clothes: Sophia and Penelope
Sophia Ainger, the vicars wife in An Unsuitable Attachment (1982), also
gets a package of clothes from a wealthy parishioner and with great excitement she
shows Ianthe Broome. But the clothes of a "Lady" are hardly appropriate for the
wife of a vicar of a poor parish, and Sophia knows it: "if only the clothes had
been plainer and more suitable," she "lamented, holding up the lame cocktail. .
When should I ever wear thisT (98). Ianthe, of course, has her doubts too, but
tries to pacify, "Yes, it is rather elaborate, isnt it, with that sequin trimming at
the neck. Still youre about the same height, and theyre obviously such good
clothes" (99). In other words, even if the clothes are inappropriate for Sophia, the
windfall is simply too good to pass up.
Sophias sister, Penelope, borrows this same lamd dress from Sophia when
she receives a last minute invitation to dinner at Rupert Stonebirds house.
Penelope arrives at her sisters in her own clothes, looking like herself, and leaves
looking like someone else: she arrives "muffled up in a duffel coat and with her
hair wild and untidy," wearing and "old tartan skirt and black sweater," needing to
borrow a dress. First, Sophia half-heartedly suggests her new green wool dress
39


but she is reluctant to lend it to Penelope because she hadnt worn it herself yet
(121) . Levin points out the fear Sophia feels which causes her hesitation: "the
fear that her younger sister might wear the new dress first is powerful because
Sophia is concerned that the dress will somehow be broken in by her sister, that
it will become part of Penelope rather than of Sophia" (Levin 305). But Penelope
rejects this dress because it would be too similar to what Ianthe Broome will likely
wear and she rejects a black one because it would be covered with cat hair. As
Levin points out, there are subtle put-downs in Penelopes remarks and the
implication that what is suitable for one sister is not suitable to the other (Levin
305). Suddenly, Sophia remembers Lady Selvedges dresses which she has by
now realized are "much too grand" for her, but perhaps are all right for Penelope
(122) . This solution of lending clothes which really arent Sophias "neutralizes
the loan somewhat," according to Levin (305). After performing some quick
alterations, the result is described:
Half an hour later Penelope was encasedfor it was a
fraction too tight for herin the lamd cocktail dress with the hem
roughly tacked up, the sequin trimming tom away from the neck
and a string of black beads hanging down below the waist. Sophia
thought this looked rather odd and had offered to lend her a string
of cultured pearls, but the beads seemed to go with the piled up hair
style and the long pointed-toed shoes that Penelope was wearing.
(122)
When Penelope arrives at Ruperts, his reaction to her appearance is to talk "rather
too much" because Penelopes "appearance in the dress of silver lamd-like some
40


kind of armour remembered from childhood play-acting . was quite startling
and such a contrast to Ianthes sober blue wool dress" (122-123). The
comparison to armour, is entirely appropriate, says Levin, "because for Penelope
the party is a battle; her quest is for a husband rather than for a fair maiden"
(Levin 306).
As Penelope surveys herself in the mirror upstairs, she notes that the dress
was certainly tight and the skirt was perhaps a little too short now,
but none the worse for that, she told herself stoutly. Since she
could not hopeand indeed did not wishto be at all like Ianthe she
could at least provide a complete contrast. (123-124)
Indeed, a contrast is always evident when Ianthe and Penelope are in the same
room. Penelope here reminds Rupert of his childhood and "play-acting," while
Ianthes terribly good clothes look like legacies from her mother, and remind
Rupert of his own mother.
Naturally, since the dress is too tight for Penelopes stout figure, a seam
splits in the back and cannot be mended because the material has "frayed and
pulled away from the seam" (129). Despite the embarrassment of having a split in
her dress, she refuses to wear Ianthes proffered fur jacket, saying that she doesnt
want to appear rude by giving the impression that the house isnt warm enough.
Really, as Pym has already made clear, Penelope doesnt want anything that would
make her look like Iantheshe rejected her sisters plain wool dresses earlier for
the same reason. Instead, she returns to the drawing room and in careful to "walk
41


to her chair with a sort of sideways movement, so that nobody could see the back
of her dress." (129-130). But later, as Rupert helps her on with her coat he does
see the split in the dress and finds it "provocative and rather endearing. Had not
Sophia been standing on the front steps of the vicarage ... he would have taken
Penelope in his arms and kissed her" (131). Thus, Penelope, in her "borrowed
plumage," aroused Ruperts protective instincts, by appearing child-like in her
"play-acting" "armour" and is portrayed as vulnerable by having a tear in her
dress, or a chink in her armor; in fact, Rupert feels endearment toward her after
this incident. Pym, in fact, shows Penelope to be trying to break out of the
borrowed dress which has encased her and has swamped her personality by forcing
her to behave differently.
Thus, Pym makes several clever uses of "other peoples clothes." She
uses the device of borrowing clothes to emphasize the idea that clothes represent
individuality and that borrowing clothes represents an invasion of one persons
identity by another; appropriating anothers clothes may even be an attempt at
stealing anothers personality. Clothes also become an important part of trying to
change anothers image and even her personality, as Allegra tries to do to
Winifred. A more extreme example of changing personality through clothing is in
Bishop Grotes project of spreading Christianity.
42


Evangelizing with Clothes: Clothes and Christianity
Clothes and Christianity have a paradoxical relationship in Some Tame
Gazelle that is reflected in Pyms choice of a surname for Belinda and Harriet that
has both the religious connotations of "Venerable Bede" and an aural association
with clothing or ornamentation, "bead." We have already seen Belinda reminding
the Archdeacon that we are not to worry about trifling matters such a clothes, but
the visit by Theodore Grote, Bishop of Mbawawa, offers us another view of
clothes. As Bishop Grote presents slides of his mission work in Africa, it becomes
clear that clothes are an integral part of his mission and that European clothes
seem to denote Christianity and proprietyand represent a visible measure of
success in "saving" his natives.
Theos slides, which included "in rapid succession several pictures of
handsome natives, dressed in bunches of leaves and garlands of flowers," cause
some members of the parish audience to giggle; the Bishop is quick to explain that
these are pictures of the natives "as they used to be," implying that images of the
noble savage will never do. In fact, he has "introduced a form of European dress
which is far more in keeping with Christian ideas of morality" (177). Pym would
probably like us to remember Henrys earlier "Garden of Eden" sentiment as she
suggests that perhaps we are in the Garden of Eden in Mbawawa as another
important aspect of clothing is introducedfor here clothing is seen representing
43


morality by covering up our sinful selves, and representing Christian charity by the
donation of clothes to help spread Christianity. Theos plea for clothes is greeted
with such enthusiasm, in fact, that Belinda fears the usurpation of current "more
deserving" projects aimed at clothing the poor people of England. Of course,
Belinda is not trying to be ungenerous, but she really imagined that the Mbawawa
were "happier in their leaves and flowers" (178). The issue of clothing these
natives takes on all the complexity of the "white mans burden" to spread
civilization, at least in Belindas mind, as she reflects that "naturally one wished
them to have the benefits of Christianity" (178), but it was hard to know where to
draw the line. Theos natives "could hardly appear at the service in a dress of
leaves, she reflected, when she herself felt that a short-sleeved dress was
unsuitable. But need they wear those shapeless cotton garments?" (178).
In a church parish where the Archdeacon and his wife place so much importance
on clothes, it is not surprising that Belinda would be confused about the proper
role of clothing in Christianity. Janice Rossen points out that
Pyms political satire is gentle, rather than scathing; still, she does
raise the issue of the white man urging his own culture on that of
the natives. Describing the British characters in sartorial terms
throughout the novel . Pym extends the question of clothes to the
Africans as well, who are seen in the slides to be ill-clothed for
their climate and temperament. (Rossen 109)
Suitability of dress has, in fact, become the hallmark of the church at home; is it
any surprise that this same value is proselytized abroad? And Belindas plea
44


against "shapeless" garments is rather ironic, since we know she never wears
anything too "fitting" herself.
In Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym turns the "consider the lilies" edict on
its head. While it is Belinda who must remind the Archdeacon not to be
concerned about his clothing, the Bishop is sending out an opposing message about
the importance of proper dress to people who had previously not given a thought
to clothes.
45


CHAPTER 4
CLOTHES AND RELATIONSHIPS
Pym tells us a good deal about characters by the clothes they wear, but
clothes are also important in denoting relationships. Relationships are frequently
exemplified in the making and giving of articles of clothing and in the care of
clothing. Further, rivalries in Pyms novels are regularly fought out on the
battleground of fashion.
Henry and Agatha: Mothballs in Paradise
One of the most important relationships in Some Tame Gazelle is the
triangle of Belinda, the Archdeacon, Hemy Hoccleve, and Agatha, Henrys wife.
The novel becomes so intricately knit with relationships, that it is difficult to
distinguish character without discussing relationships. We already had a hint of
the relationship between Belinda and the Archdeacon in the opening scene: we
know that Belinda would have dressed differentlybetter~if the Archdeacon had
been coming for dinner. Henry is actually an old flame of Belindas from their
university days and she has never gotten over his choice of Agatha over herself.
During a church garden party, we learn more of Henry, Agatha and the triangle
that is formed with Belinda.
46


Pym gives us our first glimpse of the Archdeacon leaning out of a second
story window wearing a green dressing gown with his hair all ruffled (24).
Although he is not in his underclothes, as Harriet was when we first saw her, he is
nevertheless making quite an inappropriate appearancebut he has his reasons. He
is yelling at Agatha in the garden below for letting moths get into his grey suit and
his "tirade was audible to anyone in the garden or in the road beyond" (25).
Agatha, however, returns to her work as if nothing had happened and when the
Archdeacon comes down and apologizes for being late, he darts a "quick, angry
glance at Agatha" (25). In caring for Henrys clothes, it seems, Agatha has fallen
down as a wife and the entire marriage is seen as shaky because of it.
This marriage is, in fact, shaky and Henry displays what Belinda knows to
be "one of his little oddnesses"(37)complaining about his wife. Although
Belinda tries to steer the conversation in other directions, he continually harks back
to the incident of the moths and the suit and finally interjects, "I dont think youd
have done that" (37). Here, Henry hints, for the first time, that Belinda might
have made a better wife than Agatha, chiefly because he knows her to be sensible
she would know how to take care of his clothes; Belinda, however, turns this
"compliment" into a joke by saying that he would probably have complained of the
smell of camphor from the mothballs. This scene speaks volumes about the
relationship between Henry and Agatha and of the Archdeacons concern with
47


clothes. It is ironic that Belinda, a mere parishioner, must remind Henry, a
member of the clergy, that he should not make such a fuss about "unimportant
trifles," but clearly he does not consider his "only good suit" an "unimportant
trifle." In fact, he misses Belindas Biblical "consider the lilies" allusion the first
time, and Belinda must try to more directly convince him that we are "supposed
not to take heed of what we shall wear"; Henrys reply, "My dear Belinda, we
are not in the Garden of Eden," reiterates that it was Agathas duty to see that
moths did not ruin his clothes (38). We are not, after all, noble savages bedecked
in fig-leaves, he seems to be saying, and in this less than perfect world, and more
to the point, in this less than perfect marriage, we are indeed, to "take heed of
what we shall wear"; but Belinda, in her sensible shoes, seems to be the only
person at this church garden party who has not taken heed of what she is wearing.
Harriet later comments on the domesticity of the conversation dealing with
Henrys clothes and Belindas hypothetical abilities as a wife, and concludes
readily from this evidence: "What a pity it is about Agatha. They have really
nothing in common" (40). Thus, a rather "trifling" incident over clothes is blown
out of proportion by Henry to allow him to complain about his wife, to give
Belinda some sort of false hope, and to cause Harriet to conclude that the
Hoccleves have nothing in common; in other words, the marriage is seen at risk
because of the improper care of a suit.
48


That same evening, as the Archdeacon addresses the assembly, he is
described as "very striking in clerical evening dress," reminding everyone that they
were "fortunate to have such a distinguished-looking vicar" (41); never mind that
his sermons are usually about literary subjects rather than theological, meant to
display his education rather than to be of benefit to his parishioners, and his
prayers are generally either mundane or unsuitableat least he looks good.
Clothes are even more important to Agatha and the quality and stylishness of her
clothes are a constant source of irritation to both Belinda and Harriet. Agatha
always wears "a nice suitable dress, but nothing extreme or daring" (19); her
clothes are always described as being very goodfrom "the best houses"
emphasizing her state as the wife of the Archdeacon and the daughter of a bishop
(22). Belinda can never quit wondering why Henry chose Agatha over her and
frequently this curiosity comes out in jealousy over these very good clothes. As
they bow their heads in prayer, Belinda looks down at the grass and then takes
notice of Agathas neat suede shoes, "so much more suited to the occasion than
her own" (33). In prayer, even Belinda cannot help making comparisons between
herself and Agatha, between her own attire and Agathasalways wondering why
Henry made the choice he did. Belinda "flattered herself, she wasnt entirely old
and unattractive, even in her sensible shoes" (37), but she seems neither convinced
nor convincing.
49


Belinda doesnt think it quite right, in fact, that a clergymans wife should
get her clothes "from the best houses. A clergymans wife should not "take
heed" of her clothes to the extent that Agatha does. In fact, "she ought to be a
comfortable, shabby sort of person [like herself], in an old tweed coat and skirt or
a sagging stockinette jumper suit. Her hats should be shapeless and of no
particular style and colour. Like my old gardening hat" (40), or really, like any
of Belindas clothes. Thus, even while feeling jealous of Agathas position, Pym
shows Belinda feeling superior because she does not particularly "take heed" of
what she wears, though clearly she would have taken better care of Henrys suit
than Agatha has.
To Harriet, Agatha represents a different sort of challenge. Harriet sees
Agatha as a rival for fashion preeminence in the vicarage. Both sisters are curious
about anything related to Agatha, Henry, and the curate, and since the vicarage is
just across the street from the Bede sisters home, the Bedes frequently observe
their activities. For example, as Agatha is preparing to go away for a month,
Belinda and Harriet watch the farewell curiously through their window. What they
want to see, more than anything else, is "what would Agatha wear? Would she
have a great deal of luggage or just a suitcase and a hat-box?"(71). Belinda is a
bit embarrassed by this enthusiastic voyeurism, probably because she has the larger
emotional stake and she has mixed emotions about Agathas departure. On the one
50


hand, she feels relieved that Agatha is going away; but, on the other hand, she is
feeling guilty about her feelings, especially since "the first thought that came into
her mind had been how nice it would be to be able to ask Henry in to tea or
supper without having to ask Agatha as well" (72). Because of these mixed
feelings, Belinda is afraid of being caught peeping at the Hoccleves and pretends
to be polishing a lamp in the window; Harriet, by contrast, feels no such qualms
and even has a pair of binoculars. We know that the sisters had "looked forward
to this morning with an almost childish excitement," and perhaps their voyeurism
is satisfied by the one somewhat "indecent" exposure-the curate appears in just his
shirt sleeves. Agatha finally appears "carrying a fur coat over her arm" and
wearing a hat that "makes her face look too sharp" (73), but Belinda begins to feel
self-conscious and turns away from the window. Harriet continues her sartorial
voyeurism and after Agathas departure, she announces, "I think I shall see if I
can alter my black coat and make the sleeves like Agathas" (73). Belinda is
quick to reply that Harriets coat is nice as it is, "for she had had experience of
Harriets attempts at alteration":
"Altering a coat is so much more difficult than a dress."
"Yes," agreed Harriet gravely, I think youre right. I
might buy some of that leopard-skin trimming though and put it on
the cuffs and pockets. That would be a change, and sleeves are
going to be important this winter, I believe." (73)
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Pym uses this scene to underscore the sartorial rivalry between Harriet and Agatha
as well as the romantic rivalry between Belinda and Agatha. Once again Pym
portrays Belinda hiding behind her dull stance toward fashion, and in this case
behind the curtains. Pym cleverly juxtaposes Belindas mild contempt for
Harriets desire to alter her clothes with a love situation that Belinda knows she
can never alter.
Making and Caring for Clothing and Maintaining Relationships
Belinda finds an emotional as well as a creative outlet in knitting. The
word "spinster" originally referred to a person of either sex who spun wool into
thread (OED); just as the Fates spun out the thread of life, Belinda takes pleasure
in weaving fantasies (198) and spinning out projects that cover others with her
fantasies. We have already seen her knitting an undergarment for herself, but it is
in knitting clothing for others that she finds the most pleasure.
While in Miss Jenners knitting shop, Belinda thinks of all sorts of projects,
including a sweater for the Archdeacon in "an admirable clerical grey" (82); Pym
chooses this unlikely setting of a knitting shop to reveal Belindas fantasy life:
Belinda likes this shop because "the attractive display of different wools fired her
imagination" (82). "Imagination" is key here as she vividly imagines a sweater for
the Archdeacon, just as she imagines that there is still some "fire in the
52


relationship of thirty years ago, and just as she imagined earlier that she is some
sort of threat to Agatha. Belinda is in love with an idealized Henry rather than
with Henry himself. Benet points out that Pyms characters "fall in love with
images of their own creation" (13); knitting a sweater for Henry would amount to
clothing him with her own fantasies, and making him an image of her own
creation as Benet suggests. But in the choice between knitting fantasies in her
mind and committing those fantasies to actual projects, Belinda prefers the former.
Like J. Alfred Prufrock, Belinda does not know whether she should "dare" to knit
a pullover for the Archdeacon, she finds that she "lacks the fine courage of youth"
(83). She begins to think of all the obstacles:
It would have to be done surreptitiously and before Agatha came
back. She might send it anonymously, or give it to him casually, as
if it had been left over from the Christmas charity parcel. Surely
that would be quite seemly, unless of course it might appear rather
ill-mannered? (82)
Appearance and reality are juxtaposed in Belindas musings: she wants to knit a
sweater for the Archdeacon but must conceal her real intentions from Agatha and
even from Henry, in which case, what is the sense of doing it at all? She is afraid
of appearing "ill-mannered" by making and giving and inappropriate gift, afraid of
appearing as "silly" as Miss Jenner is over the travellers, or all the ladies from
Father Plowmans parish to whom Miss Jenner has sold "clerical grey" yam.
53


Benet points out the importance of love objects, silly or not, in Barbara Pyms
novels:
In Pyms world, there is no such thing as an unsuitable attachment.
. Implicitly, the consensus is that loving someoneanyonecannot
be wrong; however, showing such love in what is considered an
improper fashion is something else. (Benet 13-14)
This dilemma is exactly what Belinda faces in the knitting shop. To save
appearances, to keep from showing her love in "an improper fashion," Belinda
goes out of her way to pretend to have a project for herself in mind. She cannot
bear the idea of appearing "silly" and she cannot bear the idea of being classified
with all the other silly women knitting articles of clothing for an fantasizing about
the clergyshe feels her situation is different. In contrast to the other spinsters,
she feels a sort of superiority because hers is a thirty-year "relationship," whereas
theirs, like Harriets serial infatuations with the clergy, are fleeting.
Nevertheless, even while in the store, Belinda comes to doubt that the
sweater project will ever come to fruition. As she assures Miss Jenner that she is
going to make herself a jumper, she begins to believe it herself and to admit a
kind of defeat"perhaps we are all silly over something or somebody without
knowing it; perhaps her own behaviour with the Archdeacon was no less silly than
Miss Jenners with the travellers" (STG 83). In her younger days, Belinda might
have gone ahead and knit the sweater without worrying about how foolish she
might appear, but she realizes that "when we grow older we lack the fine coinage
54


of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love
or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken" (83).
The chief "danger of the project is what Agatha might think. Propriety
aside, Belinda is worried that Agathas "long, thin fingers might pick at it
critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some
difficulty there" (83). Belinda is worried that she will have to face some ridicule
or "ribbing from Agatha over her mistakes; even though Pym has told us that
"Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, ... she would have an unfailing eye
for Belindas little mistakes" (83). Pyms implication of Agathas being "not
much of a knitter" is twofold; first, it harkens back to spinning out fantasies
Agatha, unlike Belinda, lives very much in the here and now rather than spinning
out fantasies; second, it again implies that Agatha is not much of a wife because
she cannot knit and does not take adequate care of the Archdeacons clothes. The
wifely skills which the Bede sisters consider important, such as grafting the toe of
a sock, do not hold much importance for Agatha. Indeed, Agatha might use "an
unfailing eye" in inspecting Belindas work, but Belinda has given too much
importance to herself as a rival of Agathas; Agathas inspection would be due
more to her own arrogance than to any threat she feels from Belinda.
Nevertheless, Belinda finally decides that "the enterprise was too fraught with
dangers to be attempted" and she determines to think no more about it, feeling that
55


she would certainly come up with a new use for the wool. Certainly, by anyones
standards, this is a lot of pondering over making a sweater for a lover who was
lost some thirty years ago: the subterfuge of making a jumper for herself and her
worry about the secrecy and precision of the project shows how Belindas fantasies
have taken over and have blown her relationship with Henry out of proportion.
Nevertheless, Pym effectively uses this incident to underscore the importance of
clothing and relationships. Later, Belinda realizes that she will never knit the
sweater and that she cannot "alter things" (157). Pyms use of a sewing term here
leads nicely into Belindas analogy of her love: "For she was now a contented
spinster and her love was like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps,
or even woolen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance"
(157-158). Thus, Pym portrays Belindas love as a protective, comforting, and
warming article of clothing. It surrounds her and keeps her warm, but without
"glamour or romance"-or sexual satisfaction. Belinda sees the comfort of her
singleness and although she might like to think that Henry prefers her over
Agatha, "she knew perfectly well that he didnt. It was one of the advantages of
being the one he hadnt married that one could be in a position to imagine such
things" (157-158); it is also one of the "comforts" of her situation. As Benet aptly
says, "she recognizes how essential to her feeling is its distance from the wear and
tear of reality" (Benet 25).
56


Finally, Belinda can turn to knitting a grey jumper for herself from the
yarn that might have been a pullover for the Archdeacon. In showing Belinda
finally abandoning the project of the sweater for Henry, Pym has Belinda realize
her self-sufficiency so that she can give herself a gift of clothes. Just as the Greek
Fate Clotho, the Spinner, spins out the thread of life, another Fate, Atropos,
carries "the abhorred shears" and cuts the thread at death; in this case, Belinda,
the spinster, marks the death of a sweaterand of an illusion.
Sartorial Rivalry
We have noted a sartorial rivalry between Harriet Bede and Agatha
Hoccleve, a rivalry which stems in part from the imagined love rivalry between
Belinda and Agatha, with Harriet taking Belindas part in the battleground of
fashion. Although Belindas jealousy of Agatha continues unabated throughout
Some Tame Gazelle, the source of her jealousy shifts once Belinda realizes that it
isnt really Henry, but her fantasy of Henry, that she wants. Belindas remnants
of jealousy for Agatha and rivalry with her now center specifically around
Agathas "very good" clothes from the "best houses." But even with her new
awareness, Belindas jealousy does not diminish until Mr. Donnes wedding when
Belinda ventures to get a second opinion about Agatha Hoccleve from Miss Prior,
the sewing lady:
j
57
i


I
"Mrs. Hoccleves dress is very smart, isnt it?" [Belinda]
ventured, feeling not quite right about discussing the guests clothes
with Miss Prior but being unable to resist the temptation.
"Smart, yes, thats what I would call it too," said Miss
Prior. "But reds not her colour. The materials good, I can see
that, but you take a look at the seams insideyou wont find them
finished off like mine are." (249)
Belinda, of course, realizes that she would never have the opportunity of
examining the dresss seams, just as Agatha would never be able to inspect the ill-
fated sweater, but Belinda sees that the "seams" of Agathas marriage are weak
and she sees that Agatha is not all that she seems. Belinda has come to understand
that it was Agatha who proposed to Henry, and that she may have, in fact,
preferred Bishop Grote; with this realization, Pym makes Belinda and the reader
aware that "romantic frustration . comes to include Agatha herself (Long 32).
Armed with this "inside" information, Belinda feels "that Agathas splendour was
considerably diminished" (STG 249), and Belinda develops "some real fellow-
feeling for this arrogant, pretentious woman," according to Nardin (52). Thus
Pym takes Agatha off the pedestal Belinda has put her on, allowing Belinda to
make peace with her. In the end, it is not Agathas relationship with Henry, but
her superior clothes that are important, and even these are devalued when Belinda
finds out that they may not be as finished on the inside as are Belindas own
clothes. Likewise, Agatha ends up being little more than her wardrobe, her
58


outside appearance, while Pym shows Belinda to have more depth and
imagination.
In Jane and Prudence, there is also a romantic rivalry which exhibits itself
as a sartorial rivalry between Jessie Morrow and Prudence Bates. Jessie has
already seduced Fabian in secret when a garden party brings the rivals face to
face. But Jessie knows her own limitations: "she knew that she could not hope to
equal Prudence in elegance, so she made no special preparations for the tea party"
(167) . Jessie even questions whether men did notice ones clothes all that much;
only on her initial visit to Fabians house, when she wore the dress of his deceased
wife, did she go to any special trouble, "at other times she had gone to him in
whatever she happened to be wearing and he had not appeared to be any less
affectionate towards her" (167). For the garden party, Miss Doggett supposes that
Miss Morrow will wear her flowered crepe (her best summer dress) and is
surprised that Jessie has it in her mind to go in a faded blue linen dress, telling
Miss Doggett, "I cant compete with Prudence Bates." Miss Doggett agrees that
she cant compete, but adds, "But you can at least wear a cleaner-looking dress"
(168) . Here, wearing a stained or dirty dress may signify Jessies stained honor,
implying that, indeed, Jessie used sex to win Fabian. Prudence, on the other
hand, is described as being at her best in a "lilac cotton dress of deceptive
simplicity" (169). Thus, Pym cleverly positions the rivals in terms of their
59


dresses, one faded and dirty-looking, one simple and cheery but "deceptive," and
prepares us for the battle which follows.
Rather than competing openly on the battleground of fashion, Jessie, in her
modest dress, decides to attack the facade of Prudences more attractive dress.
Jessie "accidentally" assaults Prudence by knocking over the table on which
Prudence has placed her cup of tea. Although others are worried about the
possible staining of the dress, Jessie says nonchalantly,
"It seems to be leaving a mark already," ... in an unsuitably
detached tone for one who had been responsible for the disaster;
"rather in the shape of Italy. I wonder if that can have any
significance." (173)
This particular incident sets at least one observer, Miss Doggett, to wondering
about the "something different that she had recently noticed about Jessie, and
causes her to wonder "if the action had been deliberately calculated" and "what
[Jessie] could have hoped to gain by it" (179). What Pym is up to here is
reminiscent of Popes line, "or stain her honor or her new brocade" (The Rape of
the Lock, line 107)since Jessies honor has been stained in her seduction of
Fabian, she feels she must belittle Prudence in some way by causing Prudences
"new brocade" to be stained as well. In the battleground of love and fashion, it
seems, all is fair.
The liaison between Fabian and Jessie Morrow is not yet known, so Pym
has Miss Doggett search for clues to Miss Morrows odd behavior in Miss
60


Morrows closet. Pym, in fact, gives us an overview of the closets contents, no
less than we would have suspectedplain clothes: a sage green jumper suit, a grey
tweed overcoat and a skirt that didnt quite match it, a blue moracain and a
flowered crepe "which had been her best summer dress for some years now."
Against these fabrics of jersey, tweed, crepe, wool, and cotton, a velvet dress of
quality formed a marked contrast. Miss Doggett realizes immediately that it is
Constance Drivers dress but wonders at the significance of it until she finds a
handkerchief with Fabians initials in Jessies handkerchief drawer (181). Now
she suspects the truth. Ironically, although clothing provides the clues to the
clandestine affair between Fabian and Jessie, the impropriety of going through
someone elses closets and drawers, renders Miss Doggett unable to disclose the
source of her discovery when she goes to tell Jane and Nicholas the shocking news
of the liaison.
Jane, too, becomes a sartorial detective, when she tries to get at the truth
about how Jessie Morrow won Fabian Driver. Her interest in the affair stems
from her curiosity about how Jessie won Fabian away from her friend Prudence, a
seemingly more suitable match for Fabian. Janes detective work begins just
before the marriage of Fabian Driver and Jessie Morrow and centers around what
the bride will wear-connecting the traditional white dress with virginity. Miss
Doggett tells Jane "we thought white would hardly be suitable. Something in a
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soft blue or dove grey, we thought, with a small hat; and a spray of flowers, not a
bouquet" (214). Jessie herself joins the group in time to explain the decision, and
to explain the "unsuitability" of white: brides over thirty, she feels, "shouldnt
wear white," she explains, but Jane is not willing to let the subject drop without
further explanation:
"Well, they may have a perfect right to," said Jane.
"A woman over thirty might not like you to think that," said
Jessie quickly. "There can be something shameful about flaunting
ones lack of experience."
Jane, as the clergymans wife, hardly knew how to answer
this. Also she was remembering Mrs. Glazes hint that Jessie might
have "stooped to ways Miss Bates wouldnt have dreamed of [to win
Fabian]." (214)
Of course, all of this discussion of brides wearing white has nothing to do with
age really, but comes from Janes own desire to know to what lengths Jessie
Morrow has gone to seduce Fabian Driver away from her friend, Prudence. Like
Miss Doggett, Jane has become a detective using clothes as clues.
Pym uses clothes in another rivalry that develops in An Unsuitable
Attachment (1982) between Ianthe Broome, the well-dressed, if a little unstylish
spinster and Penelope Grandison, the eccentric nonconformist. Ianthe is described
as having a "ladylike but hardly fashionable" appearance:
the hair smooth and neat, gathered into a little roll at the backthe
dress of a rather uninteresting shade of blue, with a skirt a good two
inches too long by Penelopes standards-the stockings with seams,
and the shoes with sensible heels and rounded toes. The jewellery,
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consisting of a small aquamarine and pearl pendant on a gold chain,
and a gold bracelet with a turquoise clasp, was obviously real. (38)
Penelope, by contrast, wears very "unconventional clothes" (38), as we can see:
Penelope had the same colouring and generally romantic air [as her
sister, Sophia], but was shorter and dumpier with rather fat legs.
She wore a black sacklike dress, a large silver medallion on a chain,
black nylon stockings and high-heeled shoes. Her hair was dressed
in a "beehive" style, which was now collapsing at one side. The
Pre-Raphaelite beatnik, Rupert thought, wondering if anybody had
ever called her that. (39)
On another occasion Ianthe is described as looking "so absolutely right" in a "plain
blue woollen dress ... set off by a feather-trimmed hat which had just the right
touch of slightly dowdy elegance if there could be such a thing" (60-61);
Penelope, by contrast, wears "a navy blue duffel coat with a tartan-lined hood,
black stockings and pointed shoes with very high heels," and Rupert Stonebird
"remembered, there was something slightly comic about her appearance" (84).
Although Ianthe dresses properly, Penelope seems to be winning Ruperts
heart as becomes evident on a trip to the continent when Rupert observes Ianthe
and Penelope standing side by side:
He was struck immediately by Ianthes absolute rightness here--the
Englishwoman in Romein her cool green linen suit and straw hat.
Penelope looked slightly grotesque by contrast, in dusty black
cotton, with red sandals on her stumpy little bare feet. She
reminded him of some of the women who had been at the
conference in Perugia. And yet Penelope was more appealing than
these and seemed genuinely pleased to see him. Her dusty little toes
amused him, for they were such a contrast to Ianthes smooth beige
linen shoes. (174)
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Ianthes "rightness," in the realm of fashion seems to work against her in Ruperts
eyes. Pym portrays Ianthe as too perfect and therefore unapproachable and
superficial like Leonora Eyre; Penelope, by contrast, with her "grotesque"
appearance and her endearing and "dusty little toes," signals to Rupert an
insecurity which he finds appealing.
When Rupert takes Ianthe to a garden party at the Learned Society, he
finally realizes why Ianthe, though perfectly groomed, is not for him. Her "blue
and white silk dress and jacket and large-brimmed blue straw hat brought back
memories of his mother at parish garden parties of his childhood" which sounds
pleasant enough, but he wonders if "this [is] quite as it should be?" (209).
Ianthes sartorial message is on of self-assurance and maturity, which is perhaps
not what Rupert wants in a woman-other than his mother, that is. He seems to
prefer Penelopes outlandishness, her grotesqueness, and her vulnerability. Benet
observes that "Rupert Stonebird sees Penelope Grandison as a vulnerable person
her efforts to enhance her attractiveness so often go awryand Rupert wishes to
confirm the desirability she wishes to create" (Benet 12). Later, she adds that
"Rupert, when faced with the pathos of Penelopes vulnerability, wants to ask her
out" (113). Thus, although Ianthe always wears proper and predictable fashions,
Rupert is amused and sometimes amazed as Penelope continues to surprise him by
her excessive makeup, her false eyelashes and her "yellow tulle hat shaped like a
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souffle" (UA 250). When lanthe becomes interested in John Challow, Rupert
realizes that his own relationship with lanthe had been "formal and meaningless"
(253), something like her clothes, actually. An Unsuitable Attachment ends with
Ianthes wedding and Ruperts approach to Penelope. Neither woman can be said
to be the definitive victor in this fashion battle, for lanthe, unknown to Penelope
(and Rupert), was never really a contenderher interests always lay elsewhere.
For Rupert, however, in the choice between lanthe, the predictable, and Penelope,
the "Pre-Raphaelite beatnik," unconventionality wins out.
Thus, Barbara Pym uses fashion to represent the batdeground of love
interests as competition in the realm of clothing comes to exemplify the romantic
rivalries in several of the novels. Harriet, on behalf of Belinda, battles Agatha to
try to compensate for Agathas triumph over Belinda in romance. Jessie Morrow
attacks Prudences dress because she knows that she cannot compete with Prudence
in the realm of style, and must get Prudence out of the way. And Rupert is won
over, not by a fashionable woman, but by one who breaks all the rules of fashion.
What Pym is saying here is that women may use the weapon of fashion in then-
approach to relationships and sartorial battles may ensue, but that the victor may
not be the most "fashionable" person; rather, the winner may be the one who can
make the strongest fashion statement, or statement of her own sexuality, and can
thereby eliminate the competition.
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CHAPTER 5
SEDUCTIVE ASPECTS OF CLOTHING
Thus far I have examined how Barbara Pym uses clothing as a
representation of characters sexuality, but Pym also uses particular articles of
clothing as articles or symbols of seduction. In this section, I will examine the
way Pym uses footwear, underwear, and make-up as part of the mating ritual.
Footwear in Some Tame Gazelle
Although Belinda Bede calls socks "trivial" and Henry Hoccleve calls socks
a "trifling matter," in Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym makes socks anything but
trivial. Indeed, socks, nearly weightless clumps of yam, come to carry more than
their weight in the narrative, where they function metaphorically. Care of clothes,
and especially of socks, comes to represents the maintaining of certain
relationships. Knitting socks for others constitutes a mating ritual as significant
and complicated as those studied by Barbara Pyms anthropologist characters,
Rupert Stonebird and Everard Bone. Pym mentions footwear in other novels, but
nowhere does she give it the attention she gives it in Some Tame Gazelle.
Pym frequently uses socks to represent Belindas long-term unrequited love
for Henry Hoccleve. First of all, socks are a cause for nostalgia as Belinda drops
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in on the domestic scene of Henrys wife Agatha darning the Archdeacons socks.
Belinda notices "rather sadly that the crimson socks Henry had bought in Vienna
were not among the pile on Agathas sewing table. But how stupid of me, she
thought, socks dont last thirty years (63). In most cases, unrequited love does
not last so long either-but Belinda has cherished this man for thirty years and
cannot seem to break the habit. On a more pragmatic level, those socks of thirty
years ago were crimson, a color that Henry could hardly wear in his position as
Archdeacon; the socks in the basket are all "the most sober archidiaconal colours"
(63). Any color or passion that Henry might have experienced as a young man,
Pym suggests, seems to have been sapped by the years and by the clerical collar.
Ironically, despite her jealousy, Belinda wants to offer to help Agatha, but
thinks better of it: "Agatha might consider it a reflection on her darning, and
certainly would not care to be reminded that Belinda had darned socks for Henry
before she had ever set eyes on him" (63). Obviously, Agatha hardly considers
Belinda the threat that Belinda considers herself; if she ever remembered Belindas
darning for Herny, she has long forgotten it, and Belinda should too. This love
triangle is really only one-sided: except for an occasional remark from Henry
about the past, it exists primarily in Belindas mind and Agatha certainly never
acknowledges Belinda as a legitimate contender. Indeed Belinda takes this whole
domestic scene too seriously, heeding her mothers caution: "Never interfere
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between husband and wife "--as if assisting with the darning would constitute
interference in any significant way. But, she thinks, "one could not be too
careful, even about an apparently trivial thing like a sock" (63).
Because Belinda is trying to be "careful, the conversation between Belinda
and Agatha becomes somewhat stilted as Belinda tries to make sense of her
confused emotions in the presence of Henrys socks. Socks and underwear, worn
next to the body, imply intimacy and provoke desire that makes Belinda
uncomfortable. When the Archdeacon enters and gives Agatha a husbandly kiss,
Belinda becomes a little sentimental over this "cosy domestic scene of Agatha
surrounded by the socks and her affectionate husband" (69) but this is an ironic
sentiment on Belindas part, since we know that the marriage is shakyno Garden
of Eden, after all. Diana Benet points out that "once or twice a gesture of affection
passes between the Hoccleves, but their union seems to be cemented especially by
the habit of mutual, low-level irritation and the utter unthinkability of any option"
(17).
As we know, even though Agatha is seen here darning Henrys socks, her
adequacy as care-giver has already been questioned and is again brought into
question when, on another occasion, as the Archdeacon gets up to leave the Bedes
house, Harriet points to the Archdeacons left foot and exclaims loudly, "Oh
youve got a hole in your sock!" (77). These kinds of irritations are simply too
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much for the Archdeacon who swears "firmly and unmistakably," resumes his
complaining attitude of the earlier garden party, and adds, "I suppose it was too
much to hope that my clothes would be left in order." Harriet agrees, "I expect
Agatha doesnt like darning, Im not at all fond of it myself, so I can sympathize."
But Belinda feebly defends Agatha by saying that a sock "is liable to go into a hole
at any time" (77), and moves hastily to make the necessary repairs, proving that
she is, indeed, the better woman. The Archdeacon protests that this is a lot of
fuss "over such a trifling matter," but
Belinda smiled as she threaded her needle. . The Archdeacon
submitted himself to her ministrations with rather an ill will, and
there was one anxious moment when Belinda inadvertently pricked
him with the needle and it seems as if he would lose his temper.
(77)
This scene is humorous first for Harriets "jolly bluntness" in inappropriately
pointing out a hole in another persons sock and then for the reactions of all three
people involved. Henry, of course, complains about his wife and her lack of
attention to his clothes; although he is a minister, a definite "damn" is the first
word that comes out, suggesting that he may not be all that he appears and
reiterating his concern about his outward appearance. Belinda certainly deserves
some merit for the speed with which she comes to Henrys rescue, and we have an
adumbrated and reversed consummation as Henry "submitted himself" and Belinda
"pricked" him with a needle. When Henry tells her that she has "done it quite
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exquisitely," and that he will take care to "be passing [her] house every time 1
have a hole in my sock," Belinda smiles, "quite pink with pleasure and confusion"
(77). It is not too much of a stretch to believe that Belinda is basking in the
afterglow, for as she tries to go on about her business, she finds it quite difficult
to concentrate: "the mending of the sock had been an upsetting and unnerving
experience" (79). This scene forms a nice pair with the earlier scene of Agathas
darning Henrys socks; on both occasions Pym shows Belinda unable to deal with
the mending of socksit proves to be "upsetting and unnerving." Part of the
attraction of her unrequited fantasy is that she can continue to love Henry and to
spin out her fantasies away from the "wear and tear of reality" (Benet 25) that is
represented as Agatha mends a pile of Henrys socks and as Belinda herself mends
a sock for him. These encounters have put Belinda in too close proximity to the
reality of Henry as a persnickety middle-aged man; she still remembers him
reading poetry to her. Now, Belinda is happier to take the Archdeacons parish
letter to bed with her rather than to confront the reality of the Archdeacon. Like
the courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages, this love will never be
consummated; as in the courtly love tradition, consummation would end this affair
of the imagination.
If Belinda has a special relationship with Henry and even with Agatha,
Harriet is fascinated by a series of young curates. Along with preparing food,
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knitting clothing for curates is an accepted tradition which Harriet utilizes as her
chief means of "doting" on these young men. For both sisters, knitting represents
clothing others in fantasies. Benet points out that "Pyms characters need to feel
needed or wish to make a difference to someone. Looking to others enables a
person so motivated to find his niche, to define himself as someone having a
purpose vis-a-vis other living beings" (12). Pym, in fact, takes the title of the
novel from a poem:
Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love! (17)
For Harriet this "something to love" is embodied in her relationship with young
curates.
Pym shows Harriet jealously asserting primacy in doting on young curates
when her suggestion that she knit Mr. Donne a pair of socks or stockings is
rebuffed with the information that he has just received two pairs. Harriet "bristled
with indignation" at this bit of news and wanted to know who might have "knit
socks for a curate whom she regarded as her property" (57). Harriet was a "little
pacified" to find out that Mrs. Hoccleves niece, a female Don, had knit them,
"but the whole thing was unsatisfactory and needed to be looked into. It was not
somehow natural for a female Don to knit for a curate, especially as she sounded
to be quite a young woman" (57). As in the Belindas love of Henrywith the
knitting of a sweater, the mending of a sockPym makes much of Harriets need
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to show her affections and sexual fantasies in terms of making socks. Part of
Pyms humor is that she can show her characters pondering such seemingly trivial
occurrences, as Harriet does here, and beginning to wonder "if there could be
anything more between them than that" (57). Ironically, Harriet feels a little
better when she realizes that Olivia Berridge must be about thirty and Mr. Donne
is not more than twenty-three or twenty-four, making the chance of a romantic
liaison less likely (never mind that Harriet herself is in her mid-fifties). But Pym
makes us suspect, along with the sisters, that the socks from Olivia Berridge are of
some significance when Mr. Donne eagerly announces the arrival of these socks to
Agatha and the Archdeacon (67).
According to the Archdeacons description of Olivia, she is somewhat of a
"bluestocking" in appearance (68). Here, Pym chooses a well-known clothing
clichd to describe both Olivias looks and her temperament. In fact, Olivias
scholarly activities are viewed by the Bedes as yet another reason why the match
could never succeed; she may be veiy "clever" and know "Anglo-Saxon and things
like that" but she seems (at least according to Harriet) unable to graft the toe of a
sock (154). Similar to Agatha, the "good philologist" (152), Olivia may be a
master at "obscure research" (68) but has not mastered the wifely arts which these
spinster sisters, ironically, see as essential to a happy connubial union.
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Nevertheless, evidence of a romance seems to be mounting, causing Harriet to
begin
to wonder if perhaps Mr. Donne loved Olivia Berridge . [but]
decided that the whole idea was so upsetting that it could not
possibly be so. In any case, he would not have the chance of seeing
her very often, and a few pairs of socks through the post could not
really do very much. (69)
The whole thing is upsetting, especially since "a few pairs of socks through the
post" are enough to start rumors in the village. So far, in fact, the relationship
between Mr. Donne and Olivia Berridge seems to center around a pair or two of
socksand Henry calls socks a "trifling matter."
Hardly a trifling matter, Pym has created a code entailing socks and feet in
a novel where there seems to be a lot of "playing footsie" going and where feet
and socks have taken on a sexual significance and have become phallic. William
Rossi has written an entire book on the erotic implications of feet and shoes, and
given these sexual implications, it is significant that many of Pyms spinsters are
knitting socks and slippers for their curates and vicars and everyone has an opinion
about socks. Mr. Donne says that he "wears them out terribly quickly and can
never have enough" (57); Father Plowman received so many slippers one year that
he gave Hemy one of his extra pairs-albeit, one that was too short (42). Henry
speculates that Father Plowman gets so many gifts because of his celibacy (66);
Agatha is no good at darning and makes a pair of socks for Bishop Grote that is
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"too short in the foot (226), and Olivia does not know how to graft a toe (153);
Harriet vaguely remembers how to graft a toe, but always has to turn to Belinda as
the ultimate authority, ironically implying that Belinda has the greater experience.
Socks can signal a sexual reversal as when Henry is "pricked by Belindas needle,
and finally Belindas love is compared to a pair of bedsocks (158). All of these
incidents create a panoply of sexual innuendo suggesting varying levels of sexual
experience and expertise. Reactions of the characters indicate lack of opportunity
in the case of Donne, lack of experience in the case of Olivia Berridge, redirection
of libido in Father Plowman, lack of satisfaction in the Hoccleves, and a state of
unknowing, or forgetting, on the part of the Bedes.
An animated and sometimes sentimental discussion between several
clergymen underscores the sexual significance of socks. They compare notes on
the socks they have received over the years:
. . The Bishop broke in, saying with a reminiscent sigh, "Ah, the
socks I had knitted for me when I was a curate!"
"I know," agreed Father Plowman, "some small, some large,
some short, some long, but all acceptable because of the goodwill
that inspired the knitters."
"I should have thought a sock was very little use unless it
was the right size," said the Archdeacon sourly. (203-204)
This scene begins to sound like a locker room comparison of conquests or a
"minor popularity contest," as Janice Rossen suggests (98). While the Bishop and
the Father compare the wealth of socks they have received, the Archdeacon
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displays his ire over his relative poverty in this arena and his bitterness about the
wrong-size socks he received second hand from Mr. Plowman. It is ironic that
Agatha then makes a pair of socks "not quite long enough in foot" (226) for the
Bishop, whom she loves. According to Rossen, "the gifts given to clergymen are
always new and of the best quality" (98); how diminished, then are these gifts that
dont quite fit or are second hand.
Indeed, Henry called socks a "trifling matter," but the evidence in Some
Tame Gazelle is to the contrary. Since Mr. Donne does marry Olivia Berridge,
Harriet proves to be justified in her initial alarm over the gift of hand-knit socks.
But Pym reminds us that Mr. Donne was not the first of Harriets curates, nor will
he be the last. Just as Belinda fantasizes about the Archdeacon, Harriet spins out
her own fantasies by making socks and cherishing the latest curate. In her final
appearance in the novel, Harriet is hunting down the latest new curate. With this
new curate, a new round of communications will begin in which the of
clothes, and especially the implications of socks, will be anything by "trivial."
Pym uses socks in Some Tame Gazelle as a sign for the latent sexuality in
this novel. Some Tame Gazelle was Pyms first novel, written while she was still
in college. In it she projects herself, her sister Hilary, and several of their friends
thirty or forty years into the future, as seen in a diary entry of 1 September 1934:
Sometime in July I began to write a story about Hilary and me as
spinsters of fiftyish. Henry, Jock and all of us appear in it. I sent
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it to them and they liked it very much. So 1 am going on with it
and one day it may become a book. It is of course "for Henry,"
and in it I seem able to say what I cannot in the ordinary course of
events. Barbara keeps looking back to her youth, and so I have an
excuse for revealing some of my present feelings about Henry. No
change has been wrought in them, as far as I can see. He still
remains the only person. (Holt and Pym 44)
Although Pym admits here to her working out her feelings through writing this
novel, given her age and her use of analogues of real people, perhaps Pym felt
uncomfortable writing about sex directly, but there are also more relationships in
Some Tame Gazelle than in the other novels that must be worked out in the
language of clothes because they cannot be acted out in reality. Harriet cannot
consummate her "love" for the curates any more than Belinda can consummate her
love for Henry. Nor can the lady parishioners consummate their love for their
curates, especially those who are celibate. Pyms characters thus compensate by
making and giving socks, a suggestive, yet safe gift.
Underclothes and Nocturnal Clothes
In addition to footwear, Pym uses underclothes to express sexuality. The
underwear is usually not described in any detail, and the articles that appear are
hardly anything sexy; nevertheless, Pym presents latent sexuality whenever
underwear is mentioned or seen. Pym has described, in the opening scene of
Some Tame Gazelle, a new curate who "seemed quite a nice young man, but what
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a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when
he sat down" (7). Our narrator speculates that perhaps Harriets "blunt jolly
manner" will be equal to approaching the curate about his combinations. Harriet
is portrayed here as just the sort of outgoing "jolly" person who would not be
afraid of telling someone that his long underwear is showing, just as she was
undaunted in telling Henry that he had a hole in his sock, as we have seen.
On this same occasion, Belinda knits after dinner while Harriet and Mr.
Donne converse. Belinda is, in fact, knitting "a pink lacy-looking garment, a
winter vest for herself," the same undergarment we saw earlier in this discussion.
Although the seemingly innocent specter of a "hot pink" undershirt may seem
pale by comparison to steamier scenes in fiction, in the world of Barbara Pym, the
exposure of this undergarment that fits close to her body "like a woolly skin" (16)
is highly suggestive, especially since it is exposed while Harriet is flirting with the
new curate.
On another occasion in Some Tame Gazelle, as four male dinner guests
arrive at the Bedes, Harriet makes a dramatic entrance with a suggestive comment
about wearing warm underclothes (117). Discussion of long underwear would not
seem sexually suggestive if we did not know Barbara Pyms style and subtlety; in
this scene, for example, since all of the dinner quests are male, Harriets mention
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I
of underclothes, even long underwear, is quite flirtatious, especially since at least
one of the men admits that he is wearing his.
In Excellent Women, Pym shows us Mildreds depression at the type of
underwear she owns"the same old things . just the kind of underclothes a
person like me might wear, I thought dejectedly, so there is no need to describe
them" (85). Once again, Mildreds clothes reflect the type of life she feels
destined to continue as an "excellent woman; Pym describes Mildreds friend
Doras underwear in a similar fashion. During a visit, Dora washes her
underwear and hangs them in Mildreds kitchen prompting Mildred to describe her
kitchen as "festooned with lines of depressing-looking underwearfawn locknit
knickers and petticoats of the same material. It was even drearier than mine"
(105-106). Rocky Napier picks this time to pay a visit to Mildred and she is
embarrassed by the "lines of dripping garments" (106). Since Mildred is actually
in love with Rocky, the specter of lines of dripping underwear has overtones of a
display of sexuality which Mildred would not feel herself capable of and is quite
uncomfortable with. On another occasion, it is Mildreds underwear which is
discovered hanging in the kitchen when Rocky followed Mildred and
stood under the line of washing, which I noticed with irritation had
become too dry to be ironed comfortably. He began pulling down
the garments and making jokes about them, but I felt that this was
not the time for coyness or embarrassment, so I took no notice of
him. (156)
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This scene would be rather disconcerting for any woman, and certainly very
embarrassing, to have a man in whom one is interested "pull down" ones
underwear and "make jokes." In this case, Pym uses the scene to suggest that
Rocky does not take Mildred seriously as a sexual creature.
In Quartet in Autumn (1977), underwear of quite a different type is implied
when Lettys friend Marjorie comes to London to shop for her trousseau. Letty
feels that a trousseau is a very old fashioned idea and an "inappropriate one for a
woman in her sixties. Yet Marjorie had always been of a romantic nature, getting
the most out of unpromising circumstances" (122). Just as Rocky insinuates that
Mildred is not a sexual creature, Letty, herself a spinster, feels that a woman in
her sixties should not be "romantic" or sexual; this idea is implicit in her attitude
toward the trousseau. Ironically, Pym confirms Lettys point of view as Marjorie
loses her opportunity to use her trousseau when a younger woman (in her forties)
steals her fiance away.
Not entirely unlike the purchase of a trousseau, Marcia Ivory buys new
underwear for the occasion of visiting her doctor, Dr. Strong, hoping that he will
notice; but she is disappointed when, instead of her regular doctor, she gets a
"golden-haired houseman" who "didnt notice her new pink underwear but did
comment admiringly on the neatness of the operation scar . and told her that
she was too thin and ought to eat more" (49). In a similar vein, Marcia has
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purchased several new nighties for her impending, planned, and self-induced
hospitalization for anorexia.
Nightclothes, too, are important when Mervyn and John Challow show up
at St. Basils bazaar in An Unsuitable Attachment and John embarrasses Ianthe by
holding up a blue bedjacket and suggesting that it would look nice on her. The
suggestiveness of nightclothes is indeed "unsuitable" here, but this indecent
flirtation foreshadows Ianthes eventual marriage to John Challow. Likewise, after
the breakup of Julian Malory and Allegra Gray in Excellent Women, a neighbor
relates that she saw Mrs. Gray shopping for underwear (249), inferring from this
action that Allegra intends to continue to seek romance.
Thus, in Pyms novels, shopping for underwear indicates a move toward
realizing sexual pleasure. Maijorie needs new underwear for her honeymoon,
Allegra needs new underwear to look for a new marriage prospect, and sadly,
Marcia believes that her attraction for her doctor will be reciprocated if she can
seduce him with her new pink panties and sexy nighties.
Makeup
Makeup is an integral of many womens clothing. Pym frequently uses
makeup as a tool in the mating ritual and her characters represent a wide spectrum
in relation to the use of makeup: from Penelope Grandison, Prudence Bates, and
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Harriet Bede who usually wear too much, to Mildred Lathbury and Belinda Bede
who wear hardly any.
Prudence Bates of Jane and Prudence is frequently described as wearing
too much makeup, particularly her dark eye shadow. On one occasion she appears
with her eyelids "startlingly and embarrassingly green, glistening with some greasy
preparation which had little flecks of silver in it" (84). Her appearance causes
Jane to wonder if this is "what one had to do nowadays when one was
unmarried?" and to consider the amount of work it would take to achieve such an
effect (84). Jane realizes that "there was something primitive about it, like the
young African smearing himself with red cam-wood before he went courting"
(84). Barbara Pym loves to include anthropologists in her novels, so equating
make-up with primitive mating rituals is quite natural for her. Jane observes:
the odd and rather irritating thing about it was, though, that
Nicholas was gazing at Prudence with admiration; it was quite
noticeable. So it really did work. Jane studied her own face in the
looking-glass above the sideboard and it looked to her just the same
as when Nicholas used to gaze at it with admiration. Would he
look at her with renewed interest if she had green eyelids? she
wondered, but her thoughts were interrupted by his voice asking
about the glass of sherry. (84)
Here, Pym shows makeup to have a magical power, or charm, over men like
Nicholas, Janes husband. The contrast between Janes plainness and Prudences
power is reflected in the contrast between Nicholas gazing at Prudence but merely
asking Jane for a drink.
81


Encounters at the makeup counter can be a battle in their own right as
Mildred Lathbury finds out in Excellent Women. After her lunch with Allegra
Gray, Mildred feels the need to "escape" and finds herself at the cosmetics counter
of a department store remembering Allegras "smooth apricot-coloured face," and
wondering how she achieved "such a striking effect" (130). Catching sight of her
own face in a mirror, she describes herself as looking "colourless and worried-
looking" and realizes that she cannot achieve the effect that Allegra has achieved,
but she feels that she can "at least buy a new lipstick" (130). The shade Mildred
wants does not seem to be available and finally a girl behind the counter who has
been watching Mildred like a disinterested anthropologist asks:
"What shade was it you wanted, dear?" . .
"Its called Hawaiian Fire," I mumbled, feeling rather
foolish, for it had not occurred to me that I should have to say it out
loud.
"Oh, Hawaiian Fire. Its rather an orange red, dear," she
said doubtfully, scrutinising my face. "I shouldnt have thought it
was quite your colour. Still, I think Ive got one here." She took a
box from behind the counter and began to look in it. (130)
In her usual self-effacing manner Mildred asks if another shade might be better,
only to elicit the response,
"Well, dear, I dont know, really." She looked at me blankly
as if no shade could really do anything for me. "Jungle Red is very
popular-or Sea Coral, thats a pretty shade, quite pale, you know."
"Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire," I said
obstinately, savouring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my
shame. (130-131)
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Buying a new bright red lipstick is a big step for this quintessential excellent
woman, a move which represents "a plunge toward life, according to Robert
Long (53), a step which marks Mildreds entrance into the mating rituals of
suburban London.
The names of these lipstick shades may indeed remind one of primitive
rituals of virgin sacrifice, and as Mildred hurries to the powder room, Pym
cleverly continues to play with the more primitive aspects of makeup as part of the
mating ritual as we see women involved in freshening up their makeup:
Inside it was a sobering sight indeed and one to put us all in mind
of the futility of material tilings and of our own mortality. All flesh
is but as grass ... I thought, watching the women working at their
faces with savage concentration, opening their mouths wide, biting
and licking their lips, stabbing at their noses and chins with power-
puffs. Some, who had abandoned the struggle to keep up, sat in
chairs, their bodies slumped down, their hands resting on their
parcels. (131)
But Mildred is not completely appalled by this savage ritual of makeup, for as we
know, she begins to take some risks with her appearance, implied in the names of
the lipsticks, after she meets the charming Rocky Napier and is introduced to
Everard Bone.
Unlike Mildred, Penelope Grandison already wears a lot of eye makeup
and we are usually given Rupert Stonebirds rather curious and bemused
impression of her. On one occasion he observes that "there was something strange
about her eyes which had a curious bruised look about them. Perhaps it was just
83


purple eye-shadow lavishly applied, he decided eventually" (UA 84). On another
occasion as she looked up at him,
he noticed that her eyes had a curious blundering, half-blind look,
as if she could scarcely open them. After a moment he realised that
she was wearing false eyelashes, longer, darker and more abundant
than her normal ones, and surely there were far too many of them?
he wondered if he was supposed to know that they were false and
felt embarrassed and somehow mean at having guessed the secret.
Quickly he looked away from her face and concentrated on her
yellow tulle hat shaped like a souffle. (250)
This last scene is, in fact, at Ianthes wedding, an occasion which reminds Rupert
of the many "marriage ceremonies" he had attended as an anthropologist, during
his field work in Africa. This same anthropological detachment is seen as Rupert
describes Penelopes makeup. Pym has created an interesting interplay of the
sexes as she has Rupert observe the nuances of one of womens primary ritualistic
devices; he even considers a possible anthropological paper: "The Wiles of Nice
Women in a Civilised Society" (255).
Pym gives us another anthropologist in Alaric Lydgate of Less Than Angels
(1955) who likes to wear his African masks in his suburban London home (55,
90). Lydgate, in fact, becomes disconcerted when it becomes too hot for him to
hide behind his masks, making him feel "defenseless, as if people passing could
look in through the window and see him sitting there idle" (93). Tom Mallow,
another anthropologist, explains that the masks are intended to "intimidate women"
(144). But Alaric thinks it would be a good thing
84


if the wearing of masks or animals heads could become customary
for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would
be if the face did not have to assume any expression~the trained
look of interest, the simulated delight of surprise, the anxious
concern one didnt feel. Alaric often avoided looking into peoples
eyes when he spoke to them, fearful of what he might see there, for
life was very terrible whatever sort of front we might put on it, and
only the eye of the very young or the very old and wise could look
out on it with a clear untroubled gaze. (57)
Although these are the thoughts of an anthropologist musing over the efficacy of
masks for hiding expression, Pym implies that womens makeup has a similar
effectallowing women a mask of apricot coloring to hide "anxious concern" in
the case of Allegra Gray, or to pretend that life was not so "very terrible" by
putting on a "front" of Jungle Red or Hawaiian Fire.
85


CHAPTER 6
LETTING GO
Since Barbara Pym uses clothes so pervasively in her novels, it is not
surprising that she would use the device of letting go of clothing to parallel letting
go of self-images that her characters have outgrown, letting go of fantasies, and in
the most severe case, letting go of reality. Letting go of clothes is no easy matter
for many because articles of clothing represent our identity and certain items have
special significance in our personal history.
Letting Go of Unwanted Clothing: Jumble
In Pyms novels, one way of getting rid of clothing that one no longer
needs or wants is to donate them to the church bazaar or jumble sale. Jumble
sales represent the low end of used clothing sales as is evident in a scene from A
Few Green Leaves (1980) wherein Daphne Dagnell is receiving discarded clothing
from the village folk. Here, although people could leave their bundles
anonymously in one of the rectory outhouses, "some preferred to come up to the
house, almost as if, instead of a natural feeling of shame, they wanted their
contributions to be known and acknowledged" (42). Generally, then, a jumble
sale is a place where one hopes that ones discarded clothing will not be
86


recognized because many times, the clothing we discard represents fashion
mistakes, styles we tried unsuccessfully, impulse buys, and a multitude of other
sartorial offenses. Yet some of Pyms characters feel that their contributions are
special and want others to know of their munificence.
Although we have already seen very good items donated by the likes of
Lady Farmer in Excellent Women, and by Lady Selvedge in An Unsuitable
Attachment, the quality of items typically given to a jumble sale is more like those
brought by Tamsin Barraclough, in A Few Green Leaves, whose contribution
includes "some old broken box-files, a collection of paperbacks and two discarded
dresses" (43). Hardly proud of her donation, "she put them inside the porch and
crept away like somebody propitiating a heathen god" (42). Tamsin has no reason
to feel ashamed, however, for these items ought to fit in nicely with the other
donated items which Pym describes:
chipped cups and odd saucers suitable for cat dishes, plastic
earrings, and an old string of pearls with the pearliness peeling off,
a tattered paperback novel whose cover portrayed the bare shoulders
of a couple in bed .... (45)
By contrast, Adam Prince was carrying
a discarded suit of such good quality that he felt attention should be
drawn to it, perhaps by hanging it on a rail as was done with the
better garments, and he wanted to make quite sure that the rectors
sister realised this. (43)
Adam Prince may well have wanted "attention" for this very good suit, but he
87


brought other items to which he did not wish to call attention:
Concealed in an anonymous bundle of old curtains and a faded
plush tablecloth, there was also a pair of jeans, too tight and too
youthful, definitely a "bad buy" as the fashion writers might say.
He did not want attention drawn to these and took care to place the
bundle underneath another one when Daphne wasnt looking. (43)
This bundle, in fact seems more typical of the items that are donated for jumble
"old" things, "faded" things, and items we never should have bought in the first
place.
Alice Shrubsole, the doctors wife, brings some childrens clothes, and a
few of her own clothes, with a "discarded tweed jacket of her husbands on top
(43). And even Emma Howick, although a newcomer, gets into the spirit of
things, but admits that "it was embarrassing to have to display a worn skirt and a
shrunken cardigan and ones old underwear, even though clean, I feel nobody will
want to buy them, she said apologetically" (47). None of these items escape
comment by the vicarage housekeeper, Mrs. Dyer, who spends
a good twenty minutes examining and disparaging the jumble, trying
to guess who had sent what. Adam Princes jeans evoked a shout of
raucous laughter and all the childrens clothes were criticised for
some fault in the washing-woollens shrunk or felted, obviously the
wrong washing-powder used, insufficient attention paid to the
television commercials .... (44)
Daphne lets Mrs. Dyer "drone on" until she eventually exhausts the subject;
apparently, this is Mrs Dyers usual routine when jumble arrives, a further
indication of the low status of jumble.
88


Pym describes a jumble sale in some detail in Excellent Women, where they
"get a tough crowd" (57), but where the clothing stall is always the most popular,
with "arguments and struggles among the buyers and the usual appeals for one of
us to arbitrate" (59). But some items are not so popular:
An old velvet coat trimmed with moth-eaten white rabbit, a soiled
pink georgette evening dress of the nineteen-twenties trimmed with
bead embroidery, a mangy fur with mad staring eyes priced at
sixpence-these things were "regulars" and nobody ever bought
them. (62)
These items, it seems, would not be difficult for the original owner to part with,
but each item, at one time at least, had a special meaning for someone. Their
very condition suggests that the owner could not part with them until they were
completely useless-letting go of these clothes represents letting go of some
incident or identity in Pyms characters lives.
Letting Go of Fantasies
In Some Tame Gazelle, a novel where "the evils of change safely averted"
is paramount (Benet 27), letting go must occur in small ways. Here, Mrs.
Ramage, the wardrobe woman, comes and buys the Bede sisters cast-offs. In
preparation, Harriet had spread nearly all of Belindas wardrobe out on the floor,
and "was quite ruthless in brushing aside Belindas feeble protest on seeing a
nearly new green crepe afternoon frock among the things to be sold" (219).
89


Belinda protests that she likes the dress and that perhaps Miss Prior could "bring it
up to date in some way, if it needs it. Perhaps a little lace collar or a contrasting
jabot" (219). It is ironic that here, in the face of letting go of some of her own
clothes, Belinda is suggesting that a dress be altered or brought up to date, and it
is Harriet who stands firm that the dress must go. It is also ironic that the dress
"is a rather trying shade of green," usually associated with jealousy, and both
Harriet and Mrs. Ramage remark that green is not Belindas colorand perhaps it
no longer is. Letting go of this dress precedes the scene of Mr. Donnes wedding
wherein Belinda seems to let go of her last vestiges of her jealousy of Agatha;
thus, Pym uses this scene of letting go as a precursor of that scene.
Belinda is willing to give up the green dress, but her resistance to parting
with her old tweed coat prompts Harriet to lecture her a bit on being too
emotionally attached to clothes:
"Its no use being sentimental about things," said Harriet.
"You shouldnt keep a clutter of clothes you never wear just because
you once liked them."
Belinda made no comment on this for she was thinking that
Harriets words might be applied to more serious things than
clothes. If only one could clear out ones mind and heart as
ruthlessly as one did ones wardrobe. . (220)
Just as Harriet showed a disregard for Belinda and her clothes by borrowing some
of them earlier, she shows that same disregard now in deciding which ones should
be sold. Although Belindas clothes represent her identity, Harriet feels free to
90


convey these clothes to a third party against Belindas wishes. Although both
sisters have reaffirmed their spinsterhood by refusing proposals during the novel,
the latent hostility is still present as Harriet brushes aside Belindas feelings
"ruthlessly.'' Pym has described Belinda as "peaceful" and "shapeless" but Harriet
wants to shape Belinda through shaping her wardrobe just as Bishop Grote tried to
shape his Mabawawans by converting them to Christianity and changing their
clothes. Harriet encourages Belinda to get rid of articles of clothing that are out
of date and she encourages her to let go rather than trying to alter things. We
imagine that Harriet will continue to try to urge Belinda toward the more stylish
fashions, just as she tried to convince her to wear high heels earlier.
The afternoon proves therapeutic for both sisters as Belinda learns to let go
of things, and Harriet diverts her mind from Mr. Donnes engagement and enters
into a "clash of wills" with Mrs. Ramage over prices. As Belinda parts with some
of her clothes, she has also parted with some of her sentimentality over Henry,
although she is a long way from being "over" him in any significant way. She
will continue to wonder why he chose Agatha, she will continue to compare
herself to Agatha, but perhaps with a bit of a difference as she begins to let her
head lead her heart, and as she realizes that green is not her colorperhaps she is
beginning to see Henry as he truly is, not as he was, and not as she would like
him to be.
91


But Belindas greatest moment of letting go comes when she finds out that
Agatha has knit some socks for Bishop Grote which are "not quite long enough in
the foot"; with this bit of information about Agathas fallibility, Belinda "felt that
she could almost love Agatha as a sister" (226). The sweater Belinda might have
knit for Henry would probably have been wrong somewhere, but since it had
never even been started, "it lacked the pathos of the socks not quite long enough
in the foot" (226). With this knowledge, Belinda is, in fact, no longer intimidated
when "Agatha gave a little social laugh, which would normally have crushed
Belinda and made her feel very gauche and inferior" (248). In this epiphany, as
elsewhere in Pyms works, it is a trivial item, a sock in this case, which makes all
the difference.
Harriet, too, must let go in Some Tame Gazelle since it ends with Mr.
Donnes marriage to Olivia Berridge. Harriet is prepared to hunt down the new
curate as she appears "magnificent in furs and veiled hat" (243), "radiat[ing] joy
and happiness" (250) as she discovers a new curate to take the place of Mr.
Donne. Jane Nardin points out that
curates are a renewable resource and so her relationships with them
have a passion, a freshness, a timelessness that no marriage could
supply. The curate of the moment is perpetually a beautiful young
man, full of possibilities. What womans face ever quite "radiated
joy and happiness" when gazing at her husband of thirty years?
(66-67)
I
\
f
i i
: i
92


Belinda understands Harriets happiness and she, too, feels happy as she realizes
that
now everything would be as it had been before those two disturbing
characters Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote appeared in the village. In
the future Belinda would continue to find such consolation as she
needed in our greater English poets, when she was not gardening or
making vests for the poor in Pimlico. (251)
Although Some Tame Gazelle ends in the wedding of Mr. Donne and Miss
Berridge, singleness and spinsterhood are truly celebrated, according to Jane
Nardin (Nardin 71). Harriet and Belinda can go on as before; having averted
those "disturbing characters" who wanted to change their lives, they are again free
to pursue the trivial round. Nardin continues, "paradoxically, then, it is by not
marrying that one keeps passion alive in Some Tame Gazelle (Nardin 68).
Harriet will continue to dote on her curates and knit them socks and pullovers, and
Belinda will continue he unabated and unrequited love for the Archdeacon, but
with a difference: she sees the Archdeacon a little more clearly, Agatha has lost a
little of her luster in Belindas eyes, and Belinda has come to see her position as
"the one not chosen" in a much different light: hers may even be the better lot
than Agathas.
93


Letting Go of Reality
Marcia Ivory of Quartet in Autumn is one of the few tragic characters in
the Pym canon. Marcia goes mad and dies of anorexia at the end of the novel,
but Pym describes the signs and progress of her decline in terms of her appearance
and her ideas about clothes.
From the outset, Pym tells us that Marcia has lost a lot of weight since she
had a mastectomy: "her clothes hung loosely on her but she didnt care how she
looked, not like Letty who was always buying new things and worried if she
couldnt get a cardigan in the exact shade to match something" (29). Thus, even
at the beginning of the novel, Pym describes Marcia as someone who seems
doomed because of her attitude of nonchalance toward her appearance; Pym
effectively contrasts Marcias attitude with her perceptions and feelings of
superiority about Letty, who in her opinion spends too much effort on her
appearance.
The characters in Quartet in Autumn, including Marcia, are elderly but
Pym makes it clear that Marcias decline in appearance is not an inevitable
component of age and retirement as she shows a marked contrast to Marcia in her
neighbors grandmother:
Priscillas grandmother was so elegantly pink and white, with her
beautifully coiffed hair and neat, pastel-coloured clothes, such a
contrast to Marcia, with that crudely dyed hair and a peculiarly
awful dress in a most unbecoming shade of bright blue. (86)
94


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