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Barbara Pym

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A full-fledged biography of Barbara Pym remains to be written. The closest we have is A LOT TO ASK: A LIFE OF BARBARA PYM (1991), by Pym’s friend and literary executor Hazel Holt. Instead of a narrative of Pym’s life, Holt supplies bridging passages between excerpts from Pym’s diaries and notebooks, letters, and novels, in the manner of the earlier volume A VERY PRIVATE EYE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN DIARIES AND LETTERS (1984), edited by Holt and Hilary Pym.

Anne Wyatt-Brown’s book is even less a conventional biography. Working from a broad psychoanalytic base, Wyatt-Brown examines the relationship between Pym’s life and work. She approaches Pym as a case study valuable for the application of theories concerning the life-cycle and aging, the creative process, and gender roles. At times, Wyatt-Brown is intolerably condescending. “To make matters worse,” she writes, having tsk-tsked over Pym’s failure to revel in her unmarried state as Ivy Compton-Burnett did, “Pym judged her deportment by traditional standards. For example, throughout her life she did her best to hide all evidence of hurt and anger.” Here Wyatt-Brown’s model with which to reprove Pym is the “forthright May Sarton, who sought to express even negative feelings with a rare degree of honesty.” It’s impossible not to wonder what Pym herself would have made of this analysis, premised as it is on values so different from her own.

For readers who persist, Wyatt-Brown’s study is not without rewards. She is on-target in her observation that Pym was torn between a desire for privacy and a contrary impulse toward self-revelation. Many of her comments on Pym’s fiction are marked by a mixture of sympathy and shrewd psychological insight. Particularly valuable are the passages in which Wyatt-Brown cites Pym’s notebooks, showing how she “converted mundane reality into appealing fiction.” The text is supplemented by notes, a primary bibliography (including the notebooks and other unpublished material among the Pym papers in the Bodleian Library), an extensive secondary bibliography, and an index. There are no photographs.