Like most novelists, Barbara Pym was interested above all in human nature, and for most of her life she trained both eye and ear upon the exploration of that subject in its many fascinating dimensions. Her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, sets the tone and subject for what is to come as she casts her specialist’s eye on British lower-class and lower-middle-class life and focuses on the quiet domestic lives of a few people. At the center are two unmarried women who have decided that, rather than seeking marriage, they will be happier living alone together. An all-pervasive influence of the Anglican Church, numerous references to anthropology and English literature, the weakness of men, realism, and a sometimes devastatingly comic tone are among the many distinctive features of not only this early novel but the later ones as well. Much the same judgment may be made for two posthumously published novels: Crampton Hodnet, which she had written in the 1930’s but never intended to publish, and An Academic Question, for which she had written two drafts (one in first person, another in third person) but abandoned to write Quartet in Autumn. In 1986, Hazel Holt published an amalgamation of the two drafts. In spite of their thin plots and shallow characterization, both novels contain Pym’s characteristically sharp observations and lively dialogue among the minor characters, as well as her concern with the elderly. Considered together, in all twelve of her novels Pym communicates her vision in an engaging, entertaining, and readable way. Her wit, her sense of style, her devotion to language and its revelation of character, and the richness of her invention all compel respect and critical attention.
“In all of her writing,” Philip Larkin has written of Pym, “I find a continual perceptive attention to detail which is a joy, and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things.” In this statement, Larkin points to perhaps the single most important technique—and theme—in Pym’s work. Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings, and Quartet in Autumn develop their effects, as indeed do all of Pym’s twelve novels, by exploiting the comedy of contemporary manners. Like her anthropologists, whom she quietly mocks for their esoteric detachment, Pym scrupulously notes and records the frustrations, unfulfilled desires, boredom, and loneliness of “ordinary people, people who have no claim to fame whatsoever.” The usual pattern for the heroine is either retrenchment into her own world or, as a result of interaction with others, self-realization. By representing intensively the small world most individuals inhabit, it is Pym’s method to suggest the world as a whole as well.
Usually Pym appoints a heroine to comment on the intimate details of social behavior. In Excellent Women, the assignment falls to Mildred Lathbury, who, as an observer of life, expects “very little—nothing, almost.” Typical of Pym’s “excellent women,” Mildred is preoccupied with order, stability, and routine, but her special interest centers on the lives and crises of those around her—including her new neighbors, Rockingham and Helena Napier; the vicar, Julian Malory; and the anthropologist, Everard Bone. Faced with Mildred’s honesty, diffidence, and unpretentiousness, the crises are resolved happily.
In Pym’s fifth novel, A Glass of Blessings, the heroine is Wilmet Forsyth, a young and leisured woman bored with her excessively sober civil-servant husband. Her near romances with a priest, her best friend’s husband, and Piers Longridge (in whose friend Keith she discovers a rival) are only some of the pairings in this intricate drama of romantic errors. When the possibility of a love affair fails to materialize, Wilmet finds a different kind of consolation in religion.
Finally, Pym’s antiheroic view of life is particularly obvious in her most somber work, Quartet in Autumn, the first of her novels to be published after fifteen years of silence. Whereas her earlier work was a small protest against everyday life, Quartet in Autumn offered a formal protest against the conditions both of life itself and of certain sad civilities. The comedy is cold and the outlook is austere in this story of four people in late middle age who suffer from the same problem: loneliness. In its manipulation of thenarrative among Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia, the novel also represents Pym’s greatest technical achievement.
Excellent Women, described by one critic as the most “felicitous” of all of Pym’s novels, explores the complications of being a spinster (and a religious one, at that) in the England of the 1950’s. The setting is a run-down part of London near Victoria Station, but the very high Anglican Church of St. Mary’s also provides the background for some of the events described. In the quiet comfort of this world, where everything is within walking distance and a new face is an occasion for speculation, the pleasantness and security of everyday life dominate. Only small crises—such as an argument between Winifred and Alegra over how to decorate the church altar—form the counterpoint to comfort. As the narrator says, “Life was like that for most of us—the small unpleasantnesses rather than...
(The entire section is 2207 words.)