Pym, Barbara 1913–1980
Pym, an English novelist and editor, wrote wry comedies of manners. Thought by many to be underrated, her novels of the 1950s are currently being revived, while her recent work is considered a fine combination of wit and irony. (See also CLC, Vol. 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 97-100; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
[The narratives of Barbara Pym's novels] have the air of being picked up almost at random: the characters have usually been living for some time in the circumstances in which we meet them, and yet some small incident—new tenants in the flat below, a new curate ("but what a pity it was that his combinations showed"), new friends made at a conference of indexers and bibliographers at a girls' school in Derbyshire—serves to set off a chain of modest happenings among interrelated groups of characters, watched or even recounted by a protagonist who tempers an ironic perception of life's absurdities with a keen awareness of its ability to bruise….
The properties may sound trivial …, yet Miss Pym's gay, confident gift invests everything it handles with an individual—comedy, is it? Certainly the reader is always on the edge of smiling…. Amusement is constantly foiling more pretentious emotion.
But emotion is there all the same. Throughout the novels runs the theme that if we are to live at all we must turn, however hesitatingly and with whatever qualifications, to someone else…. About love on the grand scale ("a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it") Miss Pym says little. Some of her heroines are content with what they have, which is more often little than much …; those who do attain a potentially satisfactory relationship do not always find it with the most immediately...
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At one point in [The Sweet Dove Died] a lady declares her intention of taking up residence in St. Basil's Priory, "a delightful country house for elderly people run by Anglican nuns". It is not a statement which could fit easily into many contemporary novels: the combination of formal phrasing, sense of purpose, and those three particular adjectives, makes it a typical comment by one of Miss Pym's "excellent women". It is not, however, a typical comment by Miss Pym herself, for although there is a great deal in her novels that is "elderly", "Anglican" and "delightful", and it is a mark of her distinction that she has managed to make these features seem so peculiarly her own, her heroines are not completely defined by any of them….
The meekest of Miss Pym's heroines (even those called Mildred) prove themselves capable of acerbity as well as acquiescence. If Leonora appears cooler than most it is partly because her coolness encompasses more racily "modern" phenomena….
[The] whole of The Sweet Dove Died depends for its momentum not on the unwinding of individual actions, but on making the most of cosy moments and nasty little coincidences. This doesn't mean that the novel is altogether tiny. Miss Pym's characters are not contained by such patterns; they are quick to spot them—viewing them, according to taste, with eagerness or aloofness. The most ingenuous are distinguished by their unwelcome capacity...
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A Glass of Blessings is neither arch, nor really remote from the daily rounds and daily tensions of many ordinary people in this America, to this day. Several of its characters are nonbelievers, several indulge in drink a lot stronger than tea, the patronizing of women is always spotted and is treated with amused irony—"'Shall we leave the gentlemen to their port and manly conversation. Women are supposed not to like port except in a rather vulgar way,'"—and as to sexual tensions and preoccupations, they are all there, hetero, homo, licit and illicit, just bobbing at the surface….
[There] is no skimming this novel for plot. No good buying it in London to read on the flight home. Instead it is the kind of book you dip into in peace and quiet, and proceed with the intention to steep yourself, like good China tea.
As Alice asked what is the use of a book without pictures and conversation, we may ask what is the use of a book without rape, incest, murder, battered wives, child abuse and racial strife. When we are looking for stimulants, do we really want to fuss about Indian tea or China tea when there are whisky and drugs? Barbara Pym's fine writing is characterized by understatement, by an irony that is always gentle, and by care in the choice of every word. She records the interactions of unexceptional people impelled by ordinary motives, both petty and kind, for whom responsibility, self-discipline and discretion are rules that are still in place.
It might be argued that Wilmet does not lift a teaspoon against social evils of which the English class system is a corrosive example. But one is more than a political self. Fiction's field is the ethical self. In spite of all the good things we've now won—sexual freedom, divorce, abortion, and Telling Everything—they are still secondary to, and less interesting than, the old values—responsibility, self-discipline, discretion. When you finish A Glass of Blessings you may find that your cheek muscles ache from all the grinning and that your better self is a little ratified.
Cynthia Propper Seton, "Tea and Titillation in the Rectory," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), April 6, 1980. p. 5.
Sometimes the most remarkable gifts of novel writing are so deftly hidden that it takes a surrender of expectations to be able to know what you hold in your hand….
[In "A Glass of Blessings," Barbara Pym] writes about a world of small things—not simple but small, not very important….
[The] mild excitement that comes with the romance and marriage of a colorless neighbor, the peccadillos of the gourmet cook at the vicarage, the occasional protest of the heart against the powerful blanc mange of respectability should add, in the ordinary way, to very slim fare. But don't be deceived.
Here is where this artful novelist instructs the reader in the ambiguities and subtleties of art. The layers of this world are onion-thin: she takes them apart gently, with no malice, not even a mild contempt. Some people live this way; she makes no judgment. But it is a relentless observation, nonetheless, and the delicacy with which it is done only adds to its irrepressible nature. Insights are light and oblique but flashingly brilliant.
At some point the reader may marvel at how Barbara Pym resists stressing the waste, the terribly unimportant, the trivia, and one's thoughts race to consider how Iris Murdoch or Evelyn Waugh would use the same milieu. But psychological insights are not Pym's tools; her affection has an unobtrusive power that works with great skill and is probably close to the truth about these inactive lives: she is writing about people who manage, as a final gesture, an act of inevitable kindness.
The relation between Wilmet and Piers, her friend's brother, for example, is filled with remarkable percipience—the author's percipience that is, not Wilmet's or Piers's. For Wilmet is marvelously confused at some of the unexpected turns that sort out her friends and begin lives afresh….
But Barbara Pym gets her safely home, and in the course of it you can see, if you take the time, how an immensely deft novelist controls and directs the movements. And one may also have the grace to recognize a little bit of dreamy Wilmet in every "me."
Henrietta Buckmaster, "High Comedy—Deftly Hidden," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), May 12, 1980, p. B7.
[Emma, the protagonist of A Few Green Leaves,] is a single woman, the last in Barbara Pym's line of observant female celibates.
As an anthropologist, she scrutinises the communal patterns of the village where she lives; as an unattached woman, she is increasingly aware of the lonely pressures of her own existence. Returning to what has often been one of her main concerns Barbara Pym ruefully sets the intellectual advantages of being an outsider against the emotional disadvantages…. As usual in this author's fiction, there is a high proportion of permanent and temporary celibates: the widowed, the separated, the unmarried and the unmarriageable. Most respond to their state with well-bred, chin-up resilience. But, while wryly chronicling the genteel stoicism of such characters, Barbara Pym never underrates the financial, social, and emotional stresses they are weathering with mannerly self-effacement.
The book's attitude to death is cheerfully down-to-earth. Its response to life is one of slightly melancholy irony. Keeping going on substitutes and second-bests, the majority of its characters have been disappointed but are not dispirited. The ability to find consolations for emotional lack always fascinates Miss Pym. Sometimes, she derives quirky comedy from it—as in her accounts of the various church-centred functions the lonely cluster to. At others, she quietly indicates how busy fendings-off of emptiness bring a bit of brightness into bleak-ish lives: spinster-polished church brasses gleam through the November gloom; a few green leaves crisply enliven an autumnal altar display.
The latter combination is appropriate…. Emma finally turns out to be one of Barbara Pym's late-flowering spinsters: after an old relationship has shown itself incapable of sprouting into much, a new one buds promisingly—and extremely aptly—as this novel stocked with seasonal imagery ends.
Peter Kemp, "Grave Comedy" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp) in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2670, July 17, 1980, p. 89.∗
[In reading A Few Green Leaves] one gets the best of both the early and the late Pym manner; a full and distinctive taste of what her novels are like.
That taste is such a mild thing that it is almost impossible to describe…. If one says that A Few Green Leaves is a beautifully written, very delicate comedy about a group of people living in a West Oxfordshire village, and that the two most exciting things which happen are a coffee morning and a Flower Festival, every Pym fan will go to their bookshop to buy it, unable to wait for the Public Library copy, and certain that they will want to read it half-a-dozen times…. But will someone who has not read Barbara Pym before think, from...
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Barbara Pym was a good novelist—which, God knows, is rare; but she was not an outstanding one.
Just how good she was, her posthumously published A Few Green Leaves makes amply clear; but it makes no less clear that she was a writer of an extremely narrow range. Not for her wuthering heights or lower depths, but merely the literary equivalent of the bland, cosy, comforting landscape of the Oxfordshire to which she retired. (p. 21)
Barbara Pym completed this book when she knew that she was under a sentence of death; but it has about it little sense of impending darkness. There are, it is true, some disturbing moments—such as that when the young doctor contemplates...
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[A Few Green Leaves] is both elegiac and hopeful. It gives a sense of pity for lost opportunities, but at the same time a courageous opening to the future.
High comedy needs a settled world, ready to resent disturbance, and in her nine novels Barbara Pym stuck serenely to the one she knew best…. This meant that the necessary confrontations must take place at cold Sunday suppers, little gatherings, visits, funerals, and so on, which Barbara Pym, supremely observant in her own territory, was able to convert into a battleground. Here, even without intending it, a given character is either advancing or retreating: you have, for instance, an unfair advantage if your mother is dead, 'just a...
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