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.
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she read Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow which confirmed her literary aspirations and inspired the composition of an unpublished first novel, "Young Men in Fancy Dress."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.
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.
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.