A Very Private Eye adds another chapter to the marvelously improbable and still ongoing saga of Barbara Pym. Published in the summer of 1984 to excellent reviews, this collage drawn from diaries, working notebooks, and letters had forty-five thousand copies in print by the fall of that year. Essential reading for students of Pym’s novels, it is also a fascinating document in its own right.
The Barbara Pym who emerges from these pages has all of the qualities that have attracted readers to her fiction, especially a quirky sense of humor and a spirited delight in the commonplace, yet the picture of her personality and her career is now much fuller, more nuanced and complex. Because she was almost thirty-seven when her first novel was published, in 1950, and because she was (mistakenly) said to have given up writing fiction for the duration of the long hiatus between the rejection of her seventh novel, in 1963, and her “rediscovery” in 1977, reviewers have sometimes condescended to Pym even while praising her, implying that she lacked the resolve, the single-mindedness, the ambition of the serious writer. A Very Private Eye should correct this misperception, for it reveals the extent to which Pym’s was truly a writer’s life.
The volume begins with a useful preface by coeditor Hazel Holt. Holt, Pym’s literary executor and for many years her coworker on the staff of the International African Institute in London, recounts the origin of A Very Private Eye and places it in the context of Pym’s work. In 1931, when she was about eighteen, Pym began to keep a diary, which she maintained, with some breaks, through World War II. “After the war,” Holt explains, “she gave up keeping a formal diary, writing instead in a series of small notebooks, from 1948 until her death in 1980.” In these eighty-two spiral-bound notebooks (which, like the diaries and all of Pym’s manuscripts, including several unpublished novels, repose in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University), Pym “recorded not only events but random thoughts and ideas for her novels, so that they are, in effect, working notebooks.” A Very Private Eye, then, consists of selections from the diaries and notebooks, in chronological sequence, mixed with letters by Pym to various correspondents; each chronological section is informatively and wittily introduced by Holt.
Also helpful—and frequently amusing—is the superb index. From the biographical notes in the index, for example, one learns the subsequent fate of some of the people who figured largely in Pym’s Oxford years; quotations of poetry are indexed, as are references to Pym’s fictional characters. Some readers will be particularly grateful for another service provided by the index: definitions of slang. Thus, when one reads that “After supper Honor and I Baldwinned our legs,” one can turn to find that a “Baldwin” is “a glove made of emery paper to defuzz legs.” Similarly, the reader who is baffled by a description of certain undergarments—“blue celanese trollies—pink suspender belt—pink kestos—white vest”—will find enlightenment in the index.
Hilary Pym, Barbara’s sister and Holt’s coeditor, has provided a brief background chapter, “The Early Life,” sketching her sister’s life up to the time she entered the university. Barbara Mary Crampton Pym, the eldest of the two daughters of Frederic Crampton Pym and Irena Spenser Pym, née Thomas, was born on June 2, 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire, near the Welsh border. Frederick Pym, a solicitor, was the illegitimate son of a domestic servant—a fact which Hilary Pym uncovered only after Barbara’s death. The Pym family was reasonably prosperous; in Hilary’s account, theirs was “a happy, unclouded childhood,” with animals and music and amateur theatricals and much churchgoing. When she was twelve, Barbara was sent to a boarding school, Liverpool College, Huyton; she went up to Oxford, where she read English, in 1931.
The main text of A Very Private Eye is divided into three parts: “Oxford” (1932-1939), “The War” (1940-1945), and “The Novelist” (1948-1980; there is a gap in the immediate postwar years). In one important respect, the sequence of these headings is...