Barbara Pym

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Pym, Barbara 1913–

Pym, an English novelist and editor, writes wry comedies of manners. Thought by many to be underrated, her novels of the 1950s are currently being revived, while her present work is considered a fine combination of wit and irony. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14, and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

A. L. Rowse

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[Barbara Pym possesses] the advantages of a subtle writer where everything is toned down as against the appalling crudity and obviousness, the outrageous barrage (with its law of diminishing returns) of so much contemporary literature, if literature it can be called, as Miss Pym would say….

[The] piano effects of Miss Pym's crisp comedy register; one cares for her characters and what happens to them, they are so real and truthfully rendered. Her books are a distillation of life; and if in watercolour, well, what better than the best English water-colours?

The novels are very lady-like—but so was Jane Austen—and what was wonderful about her is that, within the confines of a lady's view of the world, she understood everything about life: no illusions, knew perfectly what was what about people—rather better, in fact, than brute sensationalists.

The same is true of Miss Pym, for all the miniature scale on which she chooses to work: a very sharp eye, an occasionally tart comment on what she observes….

Not many tears are brought to the eyes in Miss Pym's books—no room for sentimentality in her view of the world….

There are particularly no illusions about Men. They don't notice much (Miss Pym notices everything); they assume that the whole meal is for them; they will take the last chocolate biscuit on the plate; men are not nearly so good at secrets as women; husbands will assume that their wives vote the same way as they do. (p. 732)

Miss Pym writes with the exquisite precision that is in keeping. As an old Oxford don, I can fault her only for omitting the accusative of the word "who"—she doesn't say "whom" when she ought. But that is current usage (or misusage), and I daresay "whom" is going out (with much else). "I wonder who we shall get as vicar?"—but one mustn't impute the grammar of the characters, any more than all the sentiments, to the author….

[The 1950s] is her period—and how well she renders it! The war not long over, food still short, austerity still ruling in fuel, queues in shops; whole areas bombed, churches gutted—in one, three-quarters wrecked, the services held in the one aisle still roofed.

For it is the tail-end of a society that she is depicting; the gentlefolk, the ladies, are left-overs from a better world, not quite realising that theirs had gone for good….

It is, of course, a society in deliquescence, only just emerging from the ruin and devastation of the war, on its way to the brave new social order (or disorder) of today. It is an authentic portrait of the transition: here are the signs and portents, the squalid cafeterias, the crowding and pushing, the scraps and litter on tables and floors….

Though everything is toned down, in subtly sophisticated manner, Miss Pym cannot altogether hide her cleverness. (p. 733)

Everything is toned down, the comic effects obtained by underemphasis. But what would happen if Miss Pym were to tune up a bit and, instead of being so piano, wrote us a novel con brio?

I feel rather like the ridiculous clergyman—the Prince Regent's chaplain—who suggested to Miss Austen that she might try something on a larger scale, possibly an historical novel. Miss Austen replied that she...

(This entire section contains 677 words.)

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would stick to her miniatures.

In fact, Jane Austen gives a real, not to say realist, portrait of the society of her time—if it is social realism that you want. And so does Miss Pym….

It really is a shocker if this excellent writer has several unpublished novels in her drawers, when one thinks of the quantities of rubbish that get published. If Miss Compton-Burnet or Miss Murdoch is the Mrs Radcliffe de nos jours, with their Gothic fantasies and unreal horrors, with Miss Pym's quiet comedy, authentic and convincing, perhaps one may see something of a contemporary Jane Austen. (p. 734)

A. L. Rowse, "Austen Mini?" in Punch (© 1977 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), October 19, 1977, pp. 732-34.

Tom Paulin

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Barbara Pym is a neglected novelist who, after a long period of enforced silence, has recently published a bitterly amused account of decaying Englishness [Quartet in Autumn]. And although Lord David Cecil has called Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings "the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past 75 years", their comic vision is elegantly grey rather than "high"—unless that adjective refers to their type of Anglicanism. They define a spinsterly purgatory where characters with names like Rowena, Sir Denbigh Grote, Reresby-Hamilton, engage in politely meaningless conversations in a vanished world of trolley buses, Hillman Huskies and impoverished Anglo-Catholic gentlewomen. They attend moth-eaten jumble sales in draughty parish halls, sip weak China tea and read The Church Times and Crockford's Clerical Gazette. Meek spinsters imagine romance with an archdeacon among "chipped Della Robbia plaques, the hissing of gas fires and tea urns, and the smell of damp mackintoshes."

This sad aroma permeates Quartet in Autumn which is set in the 1970s, this unfinished decade of inflation, anxiety and soul-searching on a national scale. Barbara Pym neatly suggests such issues….

Quartet in Autumn has an exact misery, and those "small poignancies and comedies of everyday life" which Philip Larkin has praised in Barbara Pym's work have now deepened into a formal protest against the conditions both of life itself and of certain sad civilities that no longer make even the limited sense they once acknowledged. (p. 72)

Tom Paulin, in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1978.

Jeremy Treglown

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After her brief charitable sortie into geriatric bedsitterdom in Quartet In Autumn, Barbara Pym [in The Sweet Dove Died] is back in Knightsbridge, exploring the romantic half-attachments of a new well-heeled heroine. It's as calculatedly thinblooded as her other novels but, like them, it achieves surprising pathos through the very limitedness of the expectations it sees in its characters and encourages in the reader….

But it's the ironic control that gets the emotional saliva going. (Miss Pym is a very culinary novelist, in her finishing-school way) so that when she finally puts a small chop on your plate it can seem like the contents of half an abattoir….

The danger is one of overstating Miss Pym's claims. What she does, after all, has been done in more substance before—not only by Jane Austen (a frequent, and inflated, source of comparison) but by Elizabeth Bowen…. (p. 27)

Jeremy Treglown, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 7, 1978.

Karl Miller

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In London last year, the Times Literary Supplement asked a number of writers to draw up a list of overrated and underrated writers. By no means a thankless task, but among the sneers that leapt to the page were words of praise, from Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, which served to call attention to Barbara Pym. She had brought out six quiet novels in the Fifties, but had gone unsung, and even, during the eventful late Sixties and after, unpublished. Now she has been sung, and is "the in-thing to read," according to one British librarian….

Philip Larkin has suggested that the men Miss Pym writes about behave worse than the women, and her novels could fairly be regarded as grist to the feminist mill. But [Excellent Women] makes much of … [Mildred,] a virgin who is forever "venturing" or "faltering," sipping tea or sherry, catching the drone of music from a nearby church….

Women like Mildred have been important to the England which has insulted them, which calls them, using the words that Lawrence used of Jane Austen, "narrow-gutted spinsters."…

It is said of Barbara Pym, as it has been said of other writers, that she is like Jane Austen, but this time at least the comparison needn't be resented. What is mostly meant by it is that she is a novelist of manners who writes about marriage and marriageability with the unromantic eye of a noticing, "positive" spinster. But the comparison can be taken further. There is a current reading of Jane Austen which holds that she is moved by the romantic attitudes with which she finds fault, and of Miss Pym, too, it can be claimed that she is both unromantic and romantic. The extent to which she is the second can be gauged by the extent to which the narrative, smilingly self-defined as that of a church-crawling "excellent woman," has in it the voice of the outcast. Mildred's authentic excellence is partly a matter of her ability to bear, and to take into constructive account, the responsibilities, sorrows, and incitements to self-pity, of such a plight.

Excellent Women made me think of Mansfield Park, in which the orphan Fanny lives, under insult, in the grand house of that name and is assailed by the blandishments of the talented but untrustworthy Crawfords….

Mildred's progress is not very different from Fanny's. Here, too, Christian humility is assailed by the talented and untrustworthy, and rewarded with a good man, with whom she is to live happily if humbly ever after…. At the same time, there is more than a touch of the Gothic novel in Excellent Women: the grand names conferred on Everard and on Rockingham Napier suggest the Cavalier strain which is evident there, the heroine's faltering and venturing are Gothic acts and words, and Everard is the hostile male of the genre who grows into her lover and savior. He is Mildred's Rochester, just as the pseudo-orphan Allegra Gray is her vampire…. (p. 24)

In the same way, another of Mrs. Pym's books—like Excellent Women, one of her best—made me think of Northanger Abbey, whose heroine is bemused by a reading of Gothic novels, and which itself resembles the kind of novel it is laughing at. In A Glass of Blessings, published in 1958, Wilmet, a young woman with an unresponsive husband, lacks experience: "I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn't even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church." She yields to "wild imaginings."… "Perhaps," though, she finally wonders, her life has been a "glass of blessings," after all. The reference is to the very beautiful poem by Herbert, "The Pulley," which supplies the novel's title and epigraph:

                When God at first made man,
           Having a glass of blessings standing
           Let us (said he) pour on him all we
           Let the world's riches, which
             dispersed lie,
              Contract into a span.
                                      (pp. 24-5)

Precious few rewards, desserts, or blessings await the four sufferers in Barbara Pym's new novel, Quartet in Autumn. Two men and two women, all near retirement, share an office in a huge firm whose business is too boring to mention….

The blessings poured for the four are such as to make the Herbert poem seem like a painful satire: literature's poor things are very unfortunate if they prevent their authors, as often happens and as happens here, from conveying that they can ever have had a really good time.

Miss Pym's best books convey an impression altogether remote from this, however, and they are those of a very accomplished writer. Her favorites among contemporary English novelists are Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Powell, and Iris Murdoch, but she could rarely be mistaken for any one of these. She may be classed with Betjeman as a poet of High Church attendance. When incense is mentioned, it tends to be as a joke: some classes of the stuff are better bred than others, we are made aware. The odor of sanctity is missing from her books, except as a further joke, but a fragrance as of vegetables and salads, as of cresses, cucumbers, lettuce, Stilton, is not. Her interest in religion is anthropological, skeptical, sardonic; it may also be romantic; whether and in what way it is pious, I can't be sure. For all I can tell, she may be an "Anglican atheist": a term of Orwell's, which has been applied to Larkin.

Religion is treated as a comfort in her books, where shyness and reserve are treated as a strength. She has said in the New Review that she would "like to see more entertaining and and amusing works written and published," and she has not been too pious or too shy to write such works herself. Some readers have chosen to praise the "high comedy" generated by her High Churchgoers, and one might feel that the snobbish English language has helped to generate that emphasis: unlike much of the high comedy known to me, hers is funny. (p. 25)

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), November 9, 1978.

Victoria Glendinning

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The narrator [of "Excellent Women"] is Mildred, a spinster in her 30's, self-effacing and dowdy, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. Her outlets are going to church and her friendship with the vicar and his sister. She expects nothing much to happen to her, and indeed it does not; but she makes friends with people to whom things do happen, and is disturbed—just a little—by their emotions, and by the emotions they awaken in her. Miss Pym's technique for comic effect is to glide over the pain of big happenings and to make much of the disproportionate impact of tiny ones….

[Mildred] is one of the "excellent women," the "rejected ones," always reliable in a crisis but never themselves part of the action. One's only doubt about Mildred is why she is so dim, when, like her creator, she is also so observant and critical. Miss Pym doesn't seem quite sure about this either….

Apart from one charming cad, all the men in "Excellent Women" are sticks. The attitude toward marriage, though, is timorous but respectful; marriage is seen as "having a man to look after," and "surely wives shouldn't be too busy to cook for their husbands? I thought in astonishment." There is irony here, but not the steel jab of feminism, merely a mild, fine irony toward the ways of the world. It is the mildness of "Excellent Women" that gives it its charm, but this also, I think, keeps it from being "high comedy"—High Church comedy it certainly is, but that's another thing….

[In "Quartet in Autumn" two] men and two women work in the same office. All live alone and none of them has much in the way of private life, but what there is of it each guards jealously and speculates upon in the other. Again, her women matter but not her men…. Letty is another Mildred, trim, controlled and devout; Marcia teeters on the edge of dottiness, using the public library shelves during the lunch hour as a place to dump her household rubbish. Both women reach retirement age and leave the office; deprived of the normalizing routine, they become more absolutely themselves. Inner chaos threatens both. Letty does not let down her defenses, and battles alone to preserve her sense of order and decency. Marcia, on the other hand, gives in entirely to her obsessions, hoarding plastic bags and old newspapers and milk bottles in her dirty house, eating nothing at all, and finally dying.

Miss Pym "comes out" in this novel as she did not in "Excellent Women." Marcia's craziness is what all solitary people fear, and it is tackled wittily but head-on. Even Letty's gallant keeping-up of appearances is scrutinized hard: Facing Christmas alone, she knows that it is not the solitude that she minds—she is used to that—but the fact that "people might find out that she had no invitation for the day and would pity her." Another question raised in a ghostly manner is this: If nothing happens between two people, no caress, no declaration, is it possible that there still was something? An unacknowledged meshing of hopes? A relationship, even?

The whole miniature Pym world of solitary women, "rejected ones," turns on this question. Letty, and all the other Lettys and Mildreds, are without experience in the world's terms; they are "emotionally deprived." "Yet she sometimes wondered, might not the experience of 'not having' be regarded as something with its own validity?" It is in the ironic exploration of "the experience of not having" that Barbara Pym's art and originality lie.

Victoria Glendinning, "The Best High Comedy," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 24, 1978, p. 8.


Pym, Barbara (Vol. 111)


Pym, Barbara (Vol. 19)