Study Guide

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the 1950’s, Barbara Pym (pihm) achieved modest critical and popular success as a novelist of manners with a comic touch. During the 1960’s and much of the 1970’s, publishers showed no interest in Pym’s work, dismissing it as out of step with the times. In 1977, however, she was singled out in a poll in The Times Literary Supplement as one of the most underrated writers of the twentieth century. Suddenly Pym became more popular than she had ever been before the long hiatus in her career, with new novels as well as reissues winning a large audience not only in Great Britain but also in the United States. Frequently compared with those of Jane Austen, Pym’s novels are among the most distinctive and highly esteemed in postwar British fiction.{$S[A]Crampton, Mary;Pym, Barbara}

Barbara Pym was born Mary Crampton, the first of two daughters born to Frederick Crampton and Irena Spenser Thomas. Her father was an established solicitor (lawyer), and her mother was the daughter of prominent dealers in iron goods who were said to have been the descendants of Welsh kings. There were household servants, a pony cart, singing, games, and laughter at Pym’s childhood home, which was outside the town of Morda in Shropshire (now Salop), near the Welsh border. As a child Pym was encouraged to write, and her first creative work, an operetta called “The Magic Diamond,” was produced by the two Pym sisters and their cousins at Morda Lodge, the Pym home. When she was twelve, Pym was sent to boarding school (Liverpool College, Huyton), where she would receive a better education than was available at nearby Oswestry facilities. In 1931 she began studies in English literature at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Sometime in 1934 Pym began what was to become her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle. She and her sister, Hilary, were models for its two principal female characters, and their friends were similarly given fictitious roles in the novel. Part of the disguise was that all the characters were written as age fifty or older. Pym’s themes in this novel would be characteristic of the themes in her future works of fiction. She wrote of emotionally deprived females who suffer rejection and disappointment when the love they feel for vain, pretentious men is not returned; meanwhile they courageously accept their quiet, ordinary lives. The novel began as a story and may have been a means by which Pym could express her own frustrated love...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Barbara Pym Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born on June 2, 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire, a small English town on the border of Wales. Like many of her characters, she led a quiet but enjoyable life among middle-class people with an Anglican background. Her father, Frederick Crampton Pym, was a solicitor and sang in the church choir; her mother, Irena (Thomas), was of half Welsh descent and played the organ. Pym was given a good education (Huyton College, a boarding school near Liverpool; and St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, from which she received a B.A. in English language and literature in 1934), saw some wartime service (Postal and Telegraph Censorship in Bristol, 1939, and the Women’s Royal Naval Service in England and Italy, 1943-1946), and lived in various sections of London: Pimlico, Barnes, and Kilburn. She wrote down everything she saw in a series of little notebooks and later “bottled it all up and reduced it, like making chutney.”

In 1948, Pym began working at the International African Institute, first as a research assistant and later as an assistant editor of the journal Africa. She was given the job of preparing the research for publication, and regretted that more of the anthropologists did not turn their talents to the writing of fiction. In their work, she found many of the qualities that make a novelist: “accurate observation, detachment, even sympathy.” Needed was a little more imagination, as well as “the leavening of irony and...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Barbara Pym Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym (pihm) was born on June 2, 1913, in the village of Oswestry, Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. She was the older daughter of Frederick Crampton Pym, a solicitor, and Irena Spencer Pym. Her sister, Hilary, with whom she lived in later life, was born in 1916; the sisters enjoyed a secure and happy childhood. At twelve, Barbara was sent to a boarding school, Liverpool College, Huyton, where she excelled chiefly as chairperson of the Literary Society. In 1931, she went to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, to study English. After finishing her degree in 1934, she traveled in Europe and worked on her first novel, which was to become Some Tame Gazelle (1950). In 1938, she went to Poland, planning to teach there, but was forced to leave by the outbreak of World War II. During the war, she served in the Royal Navy and was stationed in Italy toward the end of the conflict.

In 1946, Pym went to work for the International Africa Institute in London, where she edited a journal and got to know many anthropologists and linguists. She was not keenly interested in Africa, although she worked for the institute for twenty-eight years. Her paid work enabled her to write novels in her spare time and taught her much about the world of anthropologists, a world that she often depicts in her novels. Also important to her writing were the Anglican churches that she attended and in which she worked during her years in London.

In 1950, the publisher Jonathan Cape...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Barbara Pym Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barbara Pym’s twelve novels depict the lives of mid-twentieth century British women in small communities either in London or in the country. In general, the women are underemployed and turn their considerable talents to church and community work. Although most of her women live alone, they lead rich interior lives and maintain a detached view of the lives around them. Pym’s earliest novels, such as Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women are quite amusing, but her vision darkens as her style matures. Quartet in Autumn, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is a vision of detachment in a city with little sense of community. A sense of community is always essential to Pym’s worldview.