IIn 1971, author Barbara Pym was at her day job at the International African Institute when she noticed that “Mr. C ”was laboriously attacking his lunchtime sandwich with a knife and fork. Pym made a mental note of the details before asking herself regretfully, “Oh, why can’t I write about things like that anymore? Why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?” Ten years earlier, Jonathan Cape had left her after his sixth book, arguing that his kind of anthropological observation of English social manners was old, boring, and unsold. As an added humiliation, no other publisher had been interested in casting Miss Pym: books based on “the daily round of trivial things” could hardly compete with those of Frederick Forsyth. The day of the jackal or, if you felt like it, that of Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jonathan Cape had even published John Lennon (Pym liked the Beatles, but still). Clearly, there was no place in contemporary literature for Mr. C and his strangely formal form with a sandwich.
There is nothing unusual in that minor great novelists have a disappointing and disproportionate decline, followed by a posthumous boom in reputation and sales. What’s unusual about Pym is that her phoenix moment came while she was still alive. In 1977, the Times Literary Supplement asked renowned writers and critics to nominate their most underrated novelist of the last 75 years. Only one person was mentioned twice, by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, and that was Pym. As a result, Cape said that she would be delighted to publish her future books (too late, she explained: she had just signed with Macmillan); Roy Plomley wanted her for Desert Island Disks; John Updike couldn’t say enough about her in the New Yorker. Best of all, the Booker Prize judges shortlisted his new novel, Quartet in Autumn, his first appearance in 16 years.
In her remaining three years – she died in 1980 at the age of 66 from recurrent cancer – Pym enjoyed the recognition that had always eluded her somewhat. There was a rewarding ruckus, a good champagne and, always a favorite subject for her, an excuse to buy some fancy new clothes. Today it occupies a space of literary culture that is difficult to define. In this deeply affectionate biography, Paula Byrne claims her as a “cult author,” but that doesn’t seem entirely correct. Pym is not anyone’s idea of a well-kept secret. Although Byrne frequently describes her, especially Byrne, as a modern-day Jane Austen, in fact her work is much closer to Elizabeth Gaskell in her Cranford days. First of all, Pym’s marriage plots reek of ambivalence. People are often already married at the beginning of his books and don’t really like it, although, this being Pym’s world, they decide to stick with it. Aging single women spend years yearning for unsuitable men (gay, married, both) before realizing that they are better off without them. And then there is the charm of Pym with the vernacular of domestic life, which seems closer to the ladies of Cranford than those of Pride and prejudice – a salad divided to reveal a gray caterpillar leering at a fussy eater, a bowl of gooseberries, an archdeacon with a hole in his sock. Perhaps it is closer to reality to say that Barbara Pym is a novelist who goes out of style. Sometimes we can see her and she can see us so deeply and penetratingly that it takes our breath away, and then things get murky again for a few years.
In this excellent, a word that always carried additional weight in Pym’s universe, Byrne explores how his art grew out of three distinct but porous registers of experience. First it was life lived, then life painstakingly recorded and embroidered in the dense treasure of notebooks and letters, which Pym bequeathed to his beloved Bodleian, and finally life as transmuted in his deeply autobiographical novels. By reading carefully, Byrne shows how often, in his drafts, Pym began to write himself in his own novels, replacing the name of his heroine, say “Prudence” or “Mildred”, by “I.” On the contrary, in her long letters to her friends, who wrote stories, she often referred to herself in the third person: “Miss Pym” or “Pymska” or “Sandra” (despite how it sounds, “Sandra” was cheeky version of it). Some domesticated gazellePym’s first novel, which began shortly after her return from Oxford in 1934 but did not publish until 1950, was originally a joke imagining her and her sister’s afterlife as spinsters, which is exactly how things turned out. It got to the point where friends were wondering aloud if Barbara had an uncanny ability to cast spells on the future.
In the same way, the many men with whom Pym endured tormented love affairs regularly appeared in his novels only lightly disguised. Henry Harvey, her self-conscious Oxford boyfriend, was the model for her archdeacon, while Julian Amery, another ambivalent man who led her to dance, appears in Jane and prudence as the permanently gurning MP Edward Lyall. Meanwhile, Robert “Jock” Liddell, gay this time, is a William Caldicote ringer (another low-grade narcissist) in Excellent women. It was only at the repeated insistence of her friends that Pym removed any reference to Friedbert Gluck, her SS boyfriend with whom she had a love affair in Germany before WWII. Frankly, it is extraordinary that the only time Pym came close to being sued was when Marks & Spencer took offense at the suggestion in Jane and prudence that the women who bought their hats in Debenhams thought they were living in a slum if they were thinking of buying a dress in Marks. The threatening letter cited the fact that she had been described as the author of books “worthy of Jane Austen” as the reason for being offended.
Although Pym’s archive has already been well chosen by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate his revelations into a biography from the cradle to the grave. She offers a perfect timeline of Pym’s life as the daughter of a provincial lawyer, a wartime Oxford student Wren, and a diligent employee of the International African Society. Byrne doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathizer (he even had a swastika brooch that he wore at Oxford) lasted longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but he’s also clear just how full was. coupled with Pym’s feelings for pre-war Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of Russian communism. Maybe it says something about Pym’s blind spot on the subject that she had to be pestered by her friend and first reader Jock Liddell to remove the Nazis from the typescript of her debut novel, A Tame Gazelle, which was finally published in 1950.
Interestingly though, Byrne doesn’t delve into the less toxic matter of why Pym had such a masochistic habit of going after men who were gay or already engaged to prettier or more socially intelligent women was a Joyce Grenfellish quality for her. which led her permanently to the friend zone). Sometimes this led to behaviors that today would be considered stalking. While she started out like any dazed Oxford college student, going through the college of her latest crush several times a day in the hopes of running into him, by middle age this had grown into something more alarming. In 1956, Barbara and her sister Hilary had driven to Devon in an attempt to find out more about the family background of one of their Barnes neighbors, a country church organist with whom they had hardly ever spoken.
Whenever a man liked Pym, and often did, she decided they were boring and ran the other way. Perhaps this was because, like Dulcie Mainwaring, the heroine of No loving return of love says: “It seemed […] it is much safer and more comfortable to live in other people’s lives, to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if you were watching a movie or a play. “Or, as Pym herself confided to a friend when she was around 40s, “I love Bob, I love Richard, I love Rice Krispies … maybe it’s best in the end just to love Rice Krispies.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism