Barbara Pym gets rediscovered — again

From Paula Fox to Richard Yates, literary rediscoveries are in vogue. The latest model is wry satirist Barbara Pym

Topics: Books, Fiction, Women writers, Barbara Pym, Philip Larkin, Our Picks: Books, Editor's Picks, literary criticism, ebooks,

Barbara Pym gets rediscovered — again (Credit: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

It sometimes seems there are two schools of enjoyable fiction. In one, the fate of the world hangs in the balance: There’s running and shooting on the low-brow end of this spectrum, and scheming and intrigue higher up. In the other school, the stakes are low — in fact, that’s a key to its appeal. Making this latter sort of fiction work is infinitely more difficult, but the author who pulls it off, especially if he or she is funny, can command a fearsomely loyal readership. Barbara Pym is one of those authors.

Born a solicitor’s daughter in the West Midlands of England in 1913, educated at Oxford, serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II and working for much of the rest of her life at the International African Institute in London, Pym was a quintessential middle-class Englishwoman, much like her idol, Jane Austen. Like Austen, Pym wrote comedies of manners about the members of her own class, modeling the characters on people she knew. Her novels are populated by vicar’s wives, dotty unmarried sisters living in rural villages, holders of mid-level office jobs in sleepy London concerns and assorted anthropologists (based on the ones she met at the institute).

Pym had a modest success with the first six of these novels, publishing during the 1950s, but in the early ’60s, one publisher after another rejected “An Unsuitable Attachment.” She believed this was because her low-key style and unsensational subject matter had gone out of fashion. To a correspondent she conceded that her seventh book “might appear naïve and unsophisticated, though it isn’t really, to an unsympathetic publisher’s reader, hoping for that novel about negro homosexuals, young men in advertising, etc.” She was, probably and typically, right on the nose about that.

Her correspondent was Philip Larkin, then a fairly obscure poet but about to become a household name. (If you’ve ever heard or quoted the lines “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” or “Sexual intercourse began in 1963 [which was rather late for me],” then you know Larkin.) For the next 14 years, and despite Larkin’s advocacy, Pym could not find a publisher for her novels, though she did keep writing them. Then, in 1977, the Times Literary Supplement polled a host of literary notables asking them to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. Pym was the only author who received more than one vote; Larkin and Lord David Cecil both picked her.

What followed was every midlist author’s dream: The old novels brought back into print and the unpublished ones issued to great success. Pym was nominated for a Booker Prize, and won an all-new, avid, unflagging fan base during the 1980s, when I first devoured everything she wrote. To this day there is a Barbara Pym Society, with active chapters in the U.K. and America, as well monographs and conferences — more than ever this year, her centenary. And now, thanks to Open Road Media, a company that specializes in the digital republication of recent classics, five of Pym’s novels have been issued as e-books. (You can also get them in new trade paperback editions.)

Telling Pym’s story is a lot easier that encapsulating the appeal of her books. “Delightfully amusing,” pronounced the Guardian on her first novel, “Some Tame Gazelle,” “but no more to be described than a delicious taste or smell.” Less broad than P.G. Wodehouse, less barbed than E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series and less farcical than Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm,” Pym’s novels nevertheless exert some of the allure of those popular comic novels. Yet they have, as you might also guess from Larkin’s ongoing advocacy, more depth than any of them. Pym’s fiction is a rare mixture of the humorous and the melancholy, the sort of novel people particularly like to read on rainy days.

“It is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days,” wrote Larkin to one of the publishers who neglected to take on “An Unsuitable Attachment.” “This is the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today.” It’s probably true that no one did, just then, but that day, like all days, passed. Still, I don’t think a 21st-century reader will experience Pym’s fiction the way that Larkin did, or that American readers get the same thing from it that British ones do.

For Larkin, as for an Anglican priest chatting with the narrator of Pym’s “A Glass of Blessings,” “it’s the trivial things that matter.” Pym’s novels showed the sort of people he knew trying to live their lives — and above all, to be decent — in much the way he saw himself trying to do the same: via everyday actions. Contemporary, and certainly American, readers are more likely to find Pym’s characters and their manners fascinatingly quaint and to regard those same everyday actions and preoccupations as exotic. Hers is a world of cardigans, jumble sales and endless cups of tea, of women who sew their own dresses and regard cooking with garlic as reckless (not that they don’t sometimes long to be reckless).

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Rereading “A Glass of Blessings,” I was struck by how Wilmet, the narrator, shrugs off her best friend’s husband’s persistent attempts to initiate an affair; even the friend herself seems to know about it and not to take it very seriously. Pym’s women long for a man to look after, but seldom allow this longing to cloud their vision. They usually recognize that their men are self-involved, even fatuous, and that they take the fact that they will be fed and coddled for granted, but they love them all the same. In this respect, Pym resembles Trollope more than Austen, who was prone to idealize her heroes. No one wrote a squirrely young man better than Trollope, or at least not until Pym came along.

On the other hand, the possibility that one of the parish’s Anglican priests might be induced to join the Roman Catholic faith is treated by the characters in “A Glass of Blessings” as a very grave matter indeed. The church life in Pym’s novels is likely to seem more alien to some of her contemporary American readers than the class system in “Downton Abbey,” although the way it loops in its audience — by offering a peek into a small, intricately connected community, with its cherished rituals, long-standing rivalries and resistance to change — is much the same. (I suspect American churchgoers, especially the Midwestern ones, will find this aspect more familiar.)

The humor in Pym’s fiction arrives, not like the tart thunderbolts issued by “Downton’s” Maggie Smith, but cumulatively. By the time you are a third of the way into one of her books, a line that would register as only mildly funny out of context becomes hilarious. A few of these are droll, passing observations, such as this, about two characters in “Less Than Angels” who make a halfhearted attempt at keeping up with the crises of the larger world: “Like many other well-meaning people, they worried not so much about the dreadful things themselves as about their own inability to worry about them.”

It’s impossible, though, to convey why the following, rather similar sentence from the same novel should make a reader laugh out loud: “Like so many clergymen he had of necessity acquired that easy confidence in dealing with unmarried middle-aged women which is not often granted to the layman.” It’s not just Pym’s deftness in sketching the absurd skills demanded of this ostensibly dignified figure, but the entire, beloved little world invoked by his hard-earned knack. It’s a very dry — you could even say toasted — humor, underlaid by abiding affection and Pym’s Miss Marple-like ability to capture the whole universe of human desire and folly in the doings of a small town.

As with Austen, the very particular milieu in which Pym’s novels are set is both one of their attractions and ultimately irrelevant. “It seems a sad state of affairs if such tender, perceptive and intelligent work can’t see the light just because it won’t ‘go’ in America,” Larkin wrote to Pym when he first learned of her troubles in 1963. Eventually, what made the novels seem incapable of “going” here turned out to be a source of their charm. But that could never have been enough to make people go on reading Pym, just as no one reads Austen just to get the flavor of Regency-era life. Otherwise, any novel written in either period would do. The best, most lovable and transcendent thing about any novel is its ability to knit together the material and social details of a specific life with what we feel to be the eternal and universal experience of humanity. That’s what makes Barbara Pym’s fiction, as Larkin so aptly put it, tender, perceptive and intelligent: then and now.

A note to the intrigued: “Excellent Women,” Pym’s second novel, is probably her most popular. Unfortunately, Penguin, which possesses the rights to that title, has not seen fit to publish an e-book or new edition for Pym’s centenary. Of the five titles recently published as e-books and trade paperbacks by Open Road, “A Glass of Blessings” is a fine place to start, although if you’re most interested in seeing Pym’s amusing depiction of anthropologists, you might opt for “Less Than Angels.” But they’re all great.

Open Road Media’s entire collection of Barbara Pym e-books.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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