An Unsuitable Attachment (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
An Unsuitable Attachment was the seventh of Barbara Pym’s ten novels to be written but the last to be published; the discrepancy requires some explanation. Barbara Pym (the pen name of Mary Crampton) published her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). These novels, all of which were published by Jonathan Cape, achieved modest sales, good reviews, and a very strong following at the lending libraries. In 1963, however, when Pym submitted her seventh novel to Cape, it was summarily rejected. She submitted the novel to other publishers, all of whom rejected it. She was told that her fiction was out of date in the 1960’s—this despite the success of cheap reprints of her earlier novels and a continuing demand among library borrowers.
Thus began a sixteen-year silence for Barbara Pym. In 1977, the Times Literary Supplement ran a feature in which prominent literary figures were asked to name the most overrated and underrated writers of the past seventy-five years. Among the underrated, Pym was mentioned twice; particularly persuasive in his advocacy of Pym was the poet Philip Larkin. In the same year, Macmillan published Quartet in Autumn, Pym’s first novel in sixteen years, while Cape reissued Excellent Women.
Both the new novel and the reissued early work won extraordinary praise, and in a short time all of Pym’s previous novels were reissued in England. Two additional novels appeared as well: The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and A Few Green Leaves, the latter completed only two months before Pym’s death in January, 1980, and published posthumously in that year. Now, finally, there is An Unsuitable Attachment, the seventh of Pym’s ten novels, the rejection of which began her long silence. Its appearance crowns Pym’s triumph: her works out-of-print and forgotten in 1976, she was the subject of a special session of the Modern Language Association in 1982—a not unmixed blessing, the irony of which Pym herself, a sharp observer of learned conferences, would surely have appreciated.
For American readers, a full appreciation of Pym’s distinctive character as a novelist has been hampered by the haphazard order in which her books have appeared. Their mere availability, certainly, is cause for rejoicing, and credit for that must go to Dutton, whose program of publishing Barbara Pym deserves more attention than it has received in literary journals and trade magazines. Beginning with Quartet in Autumn and Excellent Women in 1978, Dutton reissued Pym’s novels in a uniform format. With the republication of Some Tame Gazelle in 1983, Dutton had published all ten of Pym’s novels.
In most cases, the sequence in which a novelist’s works are read is not a matter of great import, although a chronological reading can sharpen one’s sense of a writer’s development or decline. The novels of Iris Murdoch, for example, or Saul Bellow—of most novelists, in fact—are independent of one another. Such is not the case, however, with Barbara Pym’s works. Seven of Pym’s ten novels—Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, Less than Angels, A Glass of Blessings, No Fond Return of Love, An Unsuitable Attachment, and A Few Green Leaves, the last a conscious valedictory—constitute a novel-sequence, a self-contained fictional world peopled by recurring characters and linked by a network of themes and motifs. When, for example, A Few Green Leaves was published in America in 1980, readers would have made nothing of the death notice of one Fabian Driver which appears therein. Jane and Prudence, in which the self-satisfied Fabian is an important character, did not appear in America until more than a year later, in 1981, although it was originally published in England in 1953.
Such a detail may seem trivial, but in this series of seven novels—perhaps someday, an inspired critic will give the sequence a name—Pym works with precisely such details to achieve her distinctive effects. Although they are also readable on an entirely conventional level, Pym’s novels invite a more complex relationship with their audience. The recurring characters and a number of other devices and motifs in the novel draw attention to their own artifice, inviting the reader to share and delight in the making of a fictional world.
An Unsuitable Attachment clearly belongs to this sequence, and yet it is atypical. It should be noted that the text of the novel as published is not the full...
(The entire section is 1942 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
Christian Science Monitor. July 7, 1982, p. 17.
Encounter. LVIII, April, 1982, p. 74.
Library Journal. CVII, May 15, 1982, p. 1012.
Listener. CVII, February 18, 1982, p. 24.
Ms. X, June, 1982, p. 18.
New Statesman. CIII, February 19, 1982, p. 25.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, June 20, 1982, p. 11.
The New Yorker. LVIII, May 24, 1982, p. 133.
Times Literary Supplement. February 26, 1982, p. 214.