The Sweet Dove Died (1978)

by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym saw six of her novels published in the 1950s and 1960s. For the next 17 years her books were rejected by publishers as out of style. Then the Times Literary Supplement asked literary figures to name the most underrated writer of the previous 75 years, and two of them said Barbara Pym. Pym was back in vogue, and two of her novels were released before her death in 1980 and one shortly after. They are bleaker and less overtly comic than her earlier novels, disappointing some Pym fans. The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn (1977) wowed critics, however, and are considered masterpieces.

In The Sweet Dove Died, Leonora, an elegant, unmarried, middle-aged woman living in London, meets antiques dealer Humphrey Boyce and his nephew James. Humphrey is the right age, but Leonora prefers James, a bisexual who returns her chaste affection. Leonora’s feelings for James lead her to attempt to dispense with his female and male lovers and to evict a tenant in order to install James in the flat above hers, the better to control his life.

Leonora isn’t likable, but she is interesting. An aging beauty bolstered by expensive clothes, a perfect home, and admirers who take her to dinner and ask for no more, she is aware that age will diminish her appeal. At the end of the book, when her icy surface cracks, readers may feel some sympathy for Leonora.

The plot was supposed to have been based on a relationship Pym had with a much younger antiques dealer. The title is a quotation from a Keats poem about the anxieties of losing an object of value.


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