Barbara Pym Pym, Barbara (Vol. 111) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Barbara Pym 1913–1980

British novelist, autobiographer, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Pym's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 19, and 37.

Relegated for most of her life to the position of minor literary figure, Pym is now regarded as one of the most accomplished British novelists of the twentieth century. Pym's fiction, rediscovered after more than a decade and a half of obscurity, centers on the frustrations and domestic solitude of women in middle-class British social circles. An astute observer of human relationships, Pym explores the insular world of eccentric Anglican clergymen, anthropologists, librarians, fringe academics, small office workers, and unmarried women whom she depicts with gentle irony, humor, and compassion. Pym's trademark spinster is a central figure in all of her novels, portrayed as a quiet, self-reliant middle-aged woman resigned to a life of compromise and small pleasures. Often compared to the work of Jane Austen, Pym's popular and critically acclaimed novels, particularly Excellent Women (1952) and Quartet in Autumn (1977), are well-wrought and deceptively understated comedies of manners that exhibit unpretentious tragic undertones and impressive psychological depth.

Biographical Information

Born Barbara Mary Crampton Pym in Oswestry, Shropshire, Pym was the eldest of two daughters raised in a comfortable middle-class English home near Wales. Pym's father was a successful solicitor and her mother an assistant organist at the local parish, whose curates and vicars were regular dinner guests. At age twelve Pym was sent to Huyton College, an Anglican boarding school in Liverpool, where she developed an interest in literature and contributed to the school magazine. Four years later she read Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow which confirmed her literary aspirations and inspired the composition of an unpublished first novel, "Young Men in Fancy Dress." At age eighteen Pym enrolled at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she studied English literature and graduated with second-class honors in 1934. While at Oxford, Pym experienced several frustrating romantic affairs that supplied material for her early writing. During the Second World War, Pym performed volunteer work in Oswestry and later found employment in the Censorship office in Bristol. She joined the Women's Royal Naval Service in 1943 and was stationed in Naples, Italy, until the end of the war. In 1945 Pym began work for the International African Institute, a non-profit organization in London, while continuing to work on her fiction. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), was accepted by publisher Jonathan Cape in 1949. Pym produced a steady output of modestly successful novels in the next decade with Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence (1953), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). In 1963 Pym's manuscript for An Unsuitable Attachment (1982) was summarily rejected by her publisher and numerous others on the grounds that it would not satisfy changing literary tastes of the 1960s. For the next sixteen years Pym published nothing. While working at the International African Institute as an editor for the journal Africa, however, she continued to write for her own amusement and completed The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and Quartet in Autumn, both of which were also initially turned down by publishers. During the 1970s Pym suffered serious health problems resulting in a mastectomy, several strokes, and a heart attack. Despite such setbacks, Pym experienced a remarkable reversal of fortune in 1977 when poet Philip Larkin and biographer Lord David Cecil named her one of the most underrated authors of the century in a Times Literary Supplement feature. Their adulation sparked a revival of interest in her work, prompting Macmillan to quickly accept and publish Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Pym completed her final novel, A Few Green Leaves (1980), shortly before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1980. This book and the remainder of her unpublished manuscripts appeared posthumously, including An Unsuitable Attachment, her previously rejected novel, Crampton Hodnet (1985), An Academic Question (1986), Civil to Strangers and Other Writings (1987), and A Very Private Eye (1984), a volume of Pym's diary entries and correspondence edited by her sister, Hilary, and longtime friend Hazel Holt.

Major Works

Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, establishes many of the essential features of her subsequent work. Set in an English country village, the story centers on the uneventful lives of two unmarried sisters in their mid-fifties as they share the disappointments and small joys of selfless service and unrequited love. While one sister privately devotes herself to a married archdeacon who ignores her feelings for him, the other dotes on a young curate who eventually marries a younger woman. In the end, both sisters remain unattached though pleasantly satisfied in the company of each other and the security of their uncomplicated lives. As in many of Pym's novels, the male characters, usually clergymen, anthropologists, and academics, are depicted as self-centered, insensitive, and ineffectual recipients of adoration and deference from the female characters. Pym's erudite familiarity with English literature is also revealed in frequent literary allusions, present here in the title which is taken from a line by a minor Victorian poet. Such allusions are also prominent in Jane and Prudence, which contains significant references to Jane Austen, John Milton, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats. Excellent Women, Pym's most popular novel, features Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her thirties who represents the archetypal Pym spinster—educated, sharp witted, unsupported by family or husband, committed to community and church, modest and alone but single by choice. In this novel Mildred relates her involvement with an estranged married couple while residing in a London flat. Here, as in other novels, anthropologists and clergymen figure prominently. Mildred's role as arbiter among the uncomfortably situated characters underscores her tenuous position as a welcome participant and lonely observer on the verge of isolation. Typical of Pym's fiction, the plot revolves around detailed analysis of seemingly inconsequential incidents and encounters. Small gatherings and commonplace domestic activities, such as teas, dinners, and church attendance, take on the significance of major events. Pym's experience with anthropologists while working at the International Africa Institute is particularly evident in Less Than Angels. In this novel the female protagonist adopts anthropological research techniques to make shrewd observations about English social convention and to satirize anthropologists themselves. While most of Pym's novels feature unmarried women, the protagonist of A Glass of Blessings is the emotionally deprived wife of a prosperous civil servant. Failing to find love outside of the marriage, the disenchanted wife enters into a fulfilling friendship with a gay man. Like the spinsters of Pym's other novels, she finds herself content to accept companionship in place of romantic intimacy. In contrast to her earlier work, Pym's later novels, including Quartet in Autumn, The Sweet Dove Died, and A Few Green Leaves, exhibit a marked bitterness in their bleak tone and grim humor. Quartet in Autumn is a spare and unflinching examination of late-life loneliness in which Pym describes the experiences of four co-workers upon their retirement from a London office. Unprepared for the unpredictability and alienation of contemporary British life, the two women and two men struggle to find meaning in their lives without family, friends, or benevolent institutions to support them. In a contrapuntal pattern suggested by the title, Pym follows each as they face their separate solitude with reluctance and sadness. While focusing on the complex emotional impact of the aging process rather than courtships or romantic attachments, Quartet in Autumn nonetheless reveals Pym's central and recurring preoccupation with the individual's struggle to connect with others.

Critical Reception

Before 1977, Pym was considered a minor author of unassuming novels for a small, loyal readership. Since her literary rebirth and enthusiastic reevaluation, critics consistently praise her highly developed narrative abilities, remarkable social awareness, and striking modern sensibility. Pym's quiet domestic settings, unsensational plots, and earnest attention to the minutiae of social behavior are frequently associated with the work of Jane Austen and nineteenth-century realists. While such mundane subjects once rendered her work unpublishable, critics now acknowledge the surprising modernity of her fiction, particularly as found in her masterpieces Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn. Pym's disarming, dry wit and conversational narrative voice convey strong feelings of loneliness and despair with unusual subtlety and poignancy. As many critics note, the veneer of conventionality and tradition that overlays Pym's fiction adds depth to her perceptive insights into human relationships, alienation in the modern world, and the changing role of women in contemporary society. Despite the Victorian propriety of Pym's spinsters, these sophisticated, self-aware, independent female protagonists bear resemblance to the modern liberated woman. Such sympathetic treatment of autonomous women who refuse to settle into complicated and unsatisfying relationships with weak or immature men has drawn the attention of feminist critics. Pym's critical reputation rests largely on her unique and highly refined tragicomic humor, emotional sensitivity, and narrative gifts.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some Tame Gazelle (novel) 1950
Excellent Women (novel) 1952
Jane and Prudence (novel) 1953
Less Than Angels (novel) 1955
A Glass of Blessings (novel) 1958
No Fond Return of Love (novel) 1961
Quartet in Autumn (novel) 1977
The Sweet Dove Died (novel) 1978
A Few Green Leaves (novel) 1980
An Unsuitable Attachment (novel) 1982
A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (autobiography) 1984
Crampton Hodnet (novel) 1985
An Academic Question (novel) 1986
Civil to Strangers and Other Writings (novel and short stories) 1987

John Updike (essay date 26 February 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lem and Pym," in The New Yorker, February 26, 1979, pp. 115-21.

[In the following excerpt, Updike comments on Pym's writing career and offers a favorable assessment of Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn.]

Atomic aloneness in a crowded world, where life is cheap and its accidents random, can be better felt in the wanly Christian world of Barbara Pym. This English novelist has had a disheartening career. After publishing six deceptively old-fashioned novels between 1950 and 1961, she was spurned by more than twenty publishers and understandably let her pen languish. From 1946 to 1974, she supported herself as an assistant editor for the quarterly...

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Robert Phillips (review date 8 May 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrow, Splendid Work," in Commonweal, May 8, 1981, pp. 284-5.

[In the following review, Phillips praises the posthumous publication of A Few Green Leaves.]

Barbara Pym died on January 11 of last year, in a small Oxfordshire village cottage which she had come to share with her sister. At the time of her death, her books were much in demand in her country, and were finding an audience in America. And therein lies a terrible irony.

Between 1950 and 1961, Miss Pym published six novels, including Excellent Women (1952), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). But when...

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Isa Kapp (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Out of the Swim with Barbara Pym," in The American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 237-42.

[In the following essay, Kapp provides an overview of the major themes and characters in Pym's novels, noting the "sheer spinal firmness and imperturbable detachment that puts her into the rank of first-rate novelists."]

In the canny, delectable novels of the British writer Barbara Pym, we can count on finding sanctuary from the enormous liberties and vast territory that have been gained by modern fiction. Miss Pym's unworldly cast—absentminded vicars beaming kindly over their spectacles, stilted anthropologists back from Africa with charts and kinship...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 5 August 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Some Tame Gazelle, in The New York Times, August 5, 1983, p. 19.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers praise for Some Tame Gazelle.]

About a third of the way through this lovely, muted novel, Belinda turns to her sister and declares, "Today has been rather trying, hasn't it really—too much happening." What has happened, it turns out, is that the archdeacon's wife has left on holiday that morning; and the archdeacon himself has come to pay the Bede sisters, Harriet and Belinda, a tea-time visit. So circumscribed are the lives of the English spinsters and clergymen who populate Barbara Pym's novels that such events pass as high drama and...

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Eleanor B. Wymard (essay date 13 January 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Characters in Search of Order and Ceremony: Secular Faith of Barbara Pym," in Commonweal, January 13, 1984, pp. 19-21.

[In the following essay, Wymard considers commonplace gatherings and planned activities in Pym's novels as attempts to impose order on chaos and to alleviate loneliness of modern life.]

Most critics of Barbara Pym call attention to the fact that after having written six successful novels between 1950 and 1961, her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by publishers in 1963. Pym was rescued from oblivion only when Philip Larkin and David Cecil named her, in a 1975 anniversary issue of the Times Literary Supplement, as...

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Robert Emmet Long (review date 24 November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, in America, November 24, 1984, p. 348.

[In the following review, Long praises the posthumous publication of A Very Private Eye. According to Long, the volume of autobiographic writings "testifies to Pym's modest yet potent spell."]

The quietest of English novelists, Barbara Pym makes an unlikely Cinderella, yet her literary success late in life does have, oddly, a Cinderella quality. Her career as a writer began slowly and hesitantly in the 1930's, was postponed by World War II and finally launched in 1950 with the publication of her first novel Some Tame Gazelle....

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Diane Benet (essay date December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Language of Christianity in Pym's Novels," in Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea, Vol. 59, No. 235, December, 1984, pp. 504-13.

[In the following essay, Benet examines Pym's treatment of the Christian church and religious sentiment in A Few Green Leaves and several earlier novels. As Benet notes, Pym's concern over "devitalized religious words, outmoded devotional forms, and a clergy whose ability to communicate the faith is almost entirely inadequate" are recurring themes in her fiction.]

When a group of women decorates St. Mary's for Whitsunday, Mildred Lathbury, the heroine of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, remarks, "There was a good...

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Lynn Veach Sadler (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Spinsters, Non-Spinsters, and Men in the World of Barbara Pym," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 141-54.

[In the following essay, Sadler considers Pym's depiction of unmarried women and male characters in her novels. "In the Pym world," Sadler concludes, "bores and boors can be male and female, and men can out-spinster spinsters."]

At age fifty, Barbara (Mary Crampton) Pym, having published six novels appreciated by a small but faithful audience, suddenly found her seventh work refused by her publisher. She wrote nothing else for some sixteen years until she was "discovered" in a March 11, 1977, Times Literary...

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Margaret Diane Stetz (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Quartet in Autumn: New Light on Barbara Pym as a Modernist," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 24-37.

[In the following essay, Stetz challenges conventional comparisons between Pym and Jane Austen, noting modernist themes in Quartet in Autumn that bear resemblance to the writing of Virginia Woolf instead.]

Clichés about novelists and their art are like bloodstains; once they have been allowed to stand, they are almost impossible to eradicate. Among the most common and persistent errors in criticism today is the assertion that Barbara Pym's books are "just like" Jane Austen's. Critics point to their shared interest in comedy...

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Jill Rubenstein (essay date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'For the Ovaltine Had Loosened Her Tongue': Failures of Speech in Barbara Pym's Less Than Angels," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 573-80.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein examines the difficulties of self-expression and interpersonal communication among male and female characters in Pym's novels as a source of humor and pathos.]

"Well, hardly that," ventured Belinda, growing a little more confidential, for the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue. "I mean, it's a bit late for anything like that, isn't it? Henry is always loyal to Agatha and feels quite differently about her," she added hastily, in...

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Mason Cooley (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sweet Dove Died: The Sexual Politics of Narcissism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 40-9.

[In the following essay, Cooley contends that The Sweet Dove Died is among Pym's most effective literary creations. According to Cooley, "The book is a triumph of artistic consistency and economy, yet it is the coldest and most unforgiving of Barbara Pym's novels."]

Considered from a purely aesthetic point of view, The Sweet Dove Died is the most brilliant success of Barbara Pym's career. It lacks the geniality and fun of her earlier work, but it is written with a tense economy that generates greater force than...

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Margaret C. Bradham (essay date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Barbara Pym's Women," in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 31-7.

[In the following essay, Bradham reevaluates Pym's portrayal of unmarried women, dismissing superficial comparison to the work of Jane Austen and association with feminist literature. Bradham examines the "condition, thoughts, desires, and emotions" of Pym's female protagonists as they reflect the author's attitudes and interests.]

Since the Barbara Pym revival, begun in 1977 when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil independently cited her in the Times Literary Supplement as one of the most underrated novelists of the twentieth century, surprisingly little of...

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Merritt Moseley (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Few Words about Barbara Pym," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 98, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 75-87.

[In the following essay, Moseley provides a critical overview of Pym's fiction through discussion of her recurring preoccupation with unmarried women, the Anglican church, English literature, anthropology, and weak men.]

Thinking about Barbara Pym's present state of renown reminds me of the character in one of Kingsley Amis's novels who occupies himself in trying to understand his liking for women's breasts: "I was clear on why I liked them, thanks, but why did I like them so much?" Those who like Barbara Pym like her so much that perhaps some attempt to...

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Laura L. Doan (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pym's Singular Interest: The Self as Spinster," in Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 139-54.

[In the following essay, Doan examines Pym's portrayal of unmarried women as a reflection of the author's personal struggle to reconcile her own feelings about marriage and sexuality. Doan describes Pym's version of spinsterhood as "an alternative life-style which offers women an active role in society and allows them the opportunity to examine others critically."]

In the spring of 1938, the twenty-four-year-old Barbara Pym made a curious, even bizarre,...

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Jean E. Kennard (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Barbara Pym and Romantic Love," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 44-60.

[In the following essay, Kennard considers comparisons between Pym and Jane Austen, concluding that, unlike Austen, Pym subverts the traditional romance plot by focusing on older, unmarried female characters who take pleasure in the mundane realities of ordinary life.]

Barbara Pym's work is markedly different from that of other contemporary women novelists. On the surface her early novels in particular have the coziness of a Jane Austen world, and it is to Austen, whose influence Pym acknowledged, that she is most frequently compared. A. L. Rowse has called...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brothers, Barbara. "Love, Marriage, and Manners in the Novels of Barbara Pym." In Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners, edited by Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers, pp. 155-70. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Examines the ironic and comic depiction of Victorian manners and romantic ideals in Pym's novels.

Burkhart, Charles. "Barbara Pym and the Africans." Twentieth Century Literature 29, No. 1, (Spring 1983): 45-53.

Discusses the significance of anthropology and references to Africa in Pym's novels.


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