Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died: Sexual Assault Assuaged By Flowers?

Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died: Sexual Assault assuaged by flowers?

Robin Joyce

Barbara Pym’s novels are a never-ending source of social commentary. The Sweet  Dove Died , in its depiction of sexual assault is of particular interest at the moment. Leonora, perhaps reflecting Pym’s reaction to the mistreatment she endured at the hands of men, allows herself to be drawn into a fantasy in which the assault can be assuaged by the gift of flowers. However, the question arises, why does Leonora accept her situation? Or perhaps, how can she not?

Leonora is the most complex female character Pym draws. She gives full rein to the representation of negative female characteristics in a way which is not replicated in any other of her novels. In The Sweet Dove Dies Pym rejects any notion of sisterhood: ‘Leonora had little use for the cosiness of women friends, but regarded them as a foil for herself, particularly, as usually happened, they were less attractive and elegant than herself’.[1] Pym’s unrelentingly negative portrayal of Leonora is unique in her work.  Her note that there is ‘something of me in her’[2] suggests that there is more to Leonora than pure nastiness.  It is unlikely that any character with whom the writer associates is devised to illustrate an entirely negative image.[3]As Leonora has no obvious redeeming qualities it is essential to look beyond the surface representation of a non-feminist characterisation.  An alternative judgment of Leonora’s characterisation is a feminist concern with women in a patriarchal society.  Leonora is controlled by the traditional values which entrap women: concern with appearance; reliance on a man for status; rejection of what is observed as weaknesses in other women; and competition with them for the small rewards available to women under patriarchy.


Leonora has all the appearance of strength. She has a small world, into which interlopers are permitted only for a short time. She persuades the characters that she allows to remain that the world in which they move revolves around her, her elegant home, an antiques business and associated environs, places of entertainment of an elegant, but not necessarily ‘high’ cultural nature and, under duress, a poorly appointed cottage. That the latter belongs to a rival and the antiques business to Humphrey are irrelevant to Leonora. She embraces them as needed and discards the cottage when it conflicts with her view of herself.  Her comfortable world is peopled by men; she cares little for the women in her world, keeping them only a foil to herself. She accepts male admiration as her due, and rewrites the sexual assault to fit into that view.

Although Leonora has financial security, it is not enough.  She lacks the internal resources of Pym’s other spinsters whose quiet assurance makes them strongly independent.  In comparison, Leonora is dependent on her ability to camouflage her age; male admiration; and hiding from herself any resemblance to her women friends.  Her belief that they are figures of fun or pathos and that she is beyond even the most commonplace and inevitable physical connection with other women is essential to her well-being [4] When her emotional security is threatened, Leonora brings her indomitable strength to bear upon those responsible.  Although she would like to control Humphrey, he is not of particular importance to her.  Leonora’s life has always encompassed men such as him to take her to pleasant dinners and other outings and to present her with flowers.

However, Pym’s use of the flowers as a powerful image for Leonora also has feminist dimensions. At the end of the story Pym links them to Leonora’s ultimate weakness in a situation laden with patriarchal control.  When Humphrey attempts to embrace her and only the interruption by a neighbour thwarts his violent overtures Leonora speculates that he might bring her flowers in apology.  She then rewrites the scene ‘Anyway, what had he done that he should apologise to her?  Only shown that he thought her attractive, and surely all women wanted that reassurance occasionally? [5] Leonora’s physical and mental vulnerability is glaringly apparent.  Only her ego and desperation afford her the ability to resolve her vulnerability to her satisfaction.  Initially Leonora has to acknowledge her lack of control.  Humphrey is a threatening figure ‘his bulk looming over her’[6] Leonora does not want his attentions and yet is prepared to accept them.  Although she can make him feel that he has been a fool [7]it is unlikely that the Leonora finds the situation unique.  Her only a protection is to find a way of making the scene acceptable so she can maintain her place as the luminary in a limited environment.  She is contentedly pseudo-cultured, cruel, cold, pathetic, strong and triumphant.  Humphrey also continues doing what he has always intended and will remain part of Leonora’s life.  He also rewrites his attack ‘He had never forced his attentions on her, Humphrey told himself, not without smugness’. [8] The incident, because incident is what it becomes in an environment where women rewrite events to protect themselves from reality and men deny their actions are unacceptable is encompassed by Leonora’s statement of resolute egocentricity.  She particularly admires ‘flowers [which] possessed the added grace of having been presented to oneself’.[9]


A physical attack becomes an act of desire where patriarchal values flourish.


[1] TSDD, p.94

[2]MS Pym 173, fol. 61.

[3] Pym’s relationship with a much younger man could have been partially responsible for Pym’s comment.

[4] TSDD, p. 149.

[5] TSDD, p.86.

[6] (TSDD, p.83).

[7] TSDD, p.86

[8] TSDD, p.91).

[9] TSDD, p.188).