In Barbara Pym’s charming novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961), the whimsical heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, attends an indexing conference. Dumped by her fiancé, she needs to meet new people, though the conference may be prosaic. And she cannot help but mock the the titles of the papers on the program: one is simply called, “Some Problems of an Editor.”
Though many conference-goers share Dulcie’s comical views, the black-clad Viola Dace, her next-door neighbor at the dorm, haughtily sets herself apart: she is here because she “knows one of the lecturers.” She does not, however, know him well: she has a crush on Dr. Aylwin Forbes, whose wife has recently left him.
That evening, Dulcie joins the ranks of Aylwin Forbes admirers.
“Who is that good-looking man?” Dulcie whispered to Viola, as they stood in the ante-room waiting for the final gong to sound for dinner.
“Good-looking man – where?” Viola had been lost in her contemplation of their fellow conference members, who were not, on the whole, good-looking. Indeed, she had been wondering what conference could possibly consist of good-looking people, unless it was one of actors or film stars. But as soon as Dulcie spoke she knew who it must be, and was annoyed and disappointed that she should not have felt his presence in some mysterious way.
Dulcie and Viola become friends, sort of, mainly because of their Aylwin crushes. And when Viola’s landlady kicks her out, she asks if she can live with Dulcie in her big house in the suburbs. Dulcie hesitates, because her niece is staying with her, but she is flattered that Viola likes her. And their Aylwin-mania continues: Viola lounges in a park near Aylwin’s house, Dulcie walks in his neighborhood and spots him on the Underground (he can’t place her), and one night the two women walk past Aylwin’s house, where, embarrassingly, they are seen and have to make an excuse.
Even funnier, Dulcie does research on Aylwin’s family: she learns that Aylwin’s brother is a vicar, and visits the church, where a woman is crying because of her crush on the too good-looking vicar.
I chortled throughout this rereading. In the realm of love, Dulcie practices the gentle art of indexing. And all turns out surprisingly well for everybody. Pym is just so funny!