Barbara Pym’s diaries, letters, and notebooks show that she had four major interests in life: writing novels, reading literature, being a faithful supporter of the Anglican church, and getting married. Her words do not necessarily establish the priority of these goals in the order listed. She achieved the first three; she was never married. Had she not been the author of ten published novels, however, her autobiography probably never would have been published. Thus, it is the relationship between how she viewed her life and what she says in her fiction that gives this book its primary reason for being. The book probably conveys special impressions to the readers of Pym’s novels, but it still draws, in its own right, a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, sentimental, and loving woman whose life and thoughts can be enjoyed for their own sake.
Pym knew by the age of twenty-one that she wanted to be a writer, saying in a diary entry of September 1, 1934, that she had started writing a novel about herself and her sister living together as spinsters in their fifties. Her youthful prediction, in what eventually became Some Tame Gazelle, was in large part true. Her sister was married but then divorced, and the two of them lived together in their later years. Her expressions of the pleasures and pains of being a writer occupy a large portion of the book. She saw herself as fulfilled finally only by writing, yet writing was difficult and she was not, in the early years, being published. In a diary entry dated April 7, 1940, she tells of her reluctance to get down to writing while at the same time feeling that no day was a good one if a few pages of writing were not accomplished. She complained to herself about the small amount of writing she had done that year but also said that she did not have the motivation she had felt in the past: “I am no longer so certain of a glorious future as I used to be—though I still feel that I may ultimately succeed.” She was still unpublished. She concludes this particular entry by saying that reading and domestic concerns may keep her “quite happy. But it isn’t really enough, soon I shall be discontended with myself, out will come the novel and after I’ve written a few pages I shall feel on top of the world again.”
If writing itself could put her on top of the world, rejection of her manuscripts by publishers put her into other states of mind. Writing to Harvey on August 20, 1936, Pym said that Jonathan Cape, a publishing house, had agreed to take another look at her novel, but that she was only mildly hopeful about its acceptance and expected to cry when she got it back. Yet there are no exclamations of joy (because she apparently did not record any) over the final 1949 acceptance of this first novel. The absence of her feelings at that time is an example of the gaps that this particular kind of autobiography leaves in the full depiction of a life.
The different numbers of entries that occur within similar time periods suggest that once publication came her way, Pym’s writing of letters and of diary entries had to be forgone in favor of working on her novels. The entries for the...
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Upon its publication in 1984, A Very Private Eye received reviews in at least eleven major American periodicals, ranging from The Wall Street Journal to The New Republic. A thesis running through most of these reviews is that this book accomplishes the primary biographical function of elucidating some relationships between fact and fiction. Readers of this book who have previously read Pym’s novels can benefit from discovering the reasons behind her taking certain positions or expressing certain attitudes. There is the equal reward of getting her view of the real persons behind some of her fictional characters. Other readers of this book may well be led by Pym’s strong, honest, open personality to want to discover her novelistic creations.
In addition to being placed within the context of the fiction, this book can be examined in its relationship with the more usual way of publishing an author’s diaries and letters, that is, as separate volumes that do not purport to be autobiographies. Pym clearly meant to say what she says in all this material, and she clearly hoped that much of it would be published; the form it might take was not of her choosing, but she and her words are well served by this form of publication. Although this book does serve well as an autobiography, the reader should not take it as replacing a full biography, with interpretation of Pym by some writer other than Pym.