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Early Pym unsettling, comforting

Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym. New York: E. P. Dutton. 216 pp. $14.95. I have no business reviewing this book -- I am far too biased. The mere sight of a Pym dust jacket is enough to send me scurrying off in search of a comfortable armchair. ``Crampton Hodnet'' does nothing to lessen my prejudice.

I find Barbara Pym's irony as brilliant as ever, yet somehow vaguely comforting. Her world is the same gently comic one her 10 previous novels have made so cozily familar to her readers. It's a small, very English world of scholars and clergymen and ladies with intellectual leanings.

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Jessie Morrow, one of Ms. Pym's favorite types, a deceptively mild, self-effacing companion to a female dragon, describes the people who make up the world of ``Crampton Hodnet'' when she talks about Oxford parks:

In the spring there was a faintly ridiculous air about them, like Mendelssohn's ``Spring Song,'' but, as in the song, there was also a prim and proper Victorian element which chastened the fantasy and made it into something quaint and formal, like a ballet. Dons striding along with walking sticks, wives in Fair Isle jumpers coming low over the hips, nurses with prams. . . . And then there were the clergymen, solitary bearded ones reading books, young earnest ones, like chickens just out of the egg, discussing problems which had nothing to do with the sunshine or the yellow-green leaves uncurling on the trees. There were undergraduates too . . . and lovers clasping each other's fingers. . . . But for Miss Morrow the lovers were only a minor element, the North Oxford and clerical elements were stronger and gave more character to the ballet. She felt that even she and Miss Doggett could be principals. . . .

Jessie Morrow is indeed one of the principals of this story. She is one half of two couples Pym uses to entertain us with her favorite subject -- love. It's love between the sexes, but love almost devoid of sex -- a comfortable matter of affection and habit or adoration from afar, with the emphasis on ``afar.''

Miss Morrow understood quite well that the young, handsome Rev. Stephen Latimer proposed to her because ``he regarded her simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.'' She turns him down and offers him a cup of Ovaltine instead.

As for the second couple, young Barbara Bird enjoys worshiping her married tutor, Francis Cleveland, as long as he is high on the pedestal she built for him, safely out of reach. But alas, in the same wild spring mood that sends the middle-aged ladies of Oxford shopping for garments in bright May colors, he falls in love with her. Or thinks he does. (Significantly, the ladies return from shopping bearing the usual neutral-colored garments that ``go so well with everything.'')

Barbara doesn't want Francis to be in love with her. She doesn't want him ``to be like that. So many beautiful friendships have been spoilt by `that.' '' But (for a while) he is determined to be ``like that,'' and one of the funniest passages describes the couple's aborted trip to Paris, with Francis worrying over what to do about his family -- he is so comfortable where he is, and if he set Barbara up in an apartment, where would he put his books? And Barbara was wishing that ``it wasn't the kind of love one did anything about.''

People, of course, do fall in love, however unsettling it might be. ``Indeed,'' to quote Miss Morrow again, ``it is perhaps the only thing that is being done all over the world every day that is still unique.''

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``Crampton Hodnet'' is hardly a ``new'' Pym novel. The author died in January 1980, leaving behind some unpublished manuscripts, including this one, written in 1939, when she was about 16. Her close friend and literary executor, Hazel Holt, has done some editing (one wishes she had changed the uninviting title, the name of an imaginary village).

In a letter dated January 1940 the author said that this novel is ``as good as anything I ever did . . . I am sure all these [episodes in the book] might be a comfort to somebody.''

Oh, the importance of comfort.

Pamela Marsh is the former editor of the Monitor's International Edition.

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