Barbara Pym Pym, Barbara (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 622 words.)