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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...

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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.)

Philip Larkin

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

[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 attractive person or by the most romantic way….

Love, for Miss Pym's characters, is everything from a consoling daydream to a major step that takes them out of the novel's frame, but it can also be how we learn about others, or even reveal ourselves to them…. Miss Pym's novels may look like "women's books", but no man can read them and be quite the same again….

[What] stays longest with the reader, once the amusement, the satire, the alert ear and the exact eye have all been acknowledged? Partly it is the underlying loneliness of life, the sense of vulnerant omnes, whatever one thinks of when turning out the light in bed …; then partly it is the virtue of enduring this, the unpretentious adherence to the Church of England, the absence of self-pity, the scrupulousness of one's relations with others, the small blameless comforts.

Philip Larkin, "The World of Barbara Pym" (© Philip Larkin 1977), in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3913, March 11, 1977, p. 260.

Susannah Clapp

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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 for generalizations about women of "their" age; the more composed, such as Leonora, end up barricaded behind their own pre-emptive classifications, blessed by the habit of thinking themselves blessed, but shut off from the possibilities of those "less fortunate women" who burst into tears, enjoy jam rolls or become waspish about their mistreatment. Miss Pym herself wields the damning general statement frequently, and generally with force, sifting her characters into large groups by reference to the most specific circumstances….

A sprinkling of what might seem to be gratuitously outmoded figures—a woman in a pixie-hood glimpsed at Keats's house; an exceptionally good-looking clergyman taking tea on a train—may be seen as glancing references to the early novels which featured such characters more prominently, for just when quaintness seems about to threaten, Miss Pym indicates that she knows what is happening.

Susannah Clapp, "Genteel Reminders," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3979, July 7, 1978, p. 757.

Cynthia Propper Seton

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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.

Henrietta Buckmaster

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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.

Peter Kemp

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[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.∗

A. N. Wilson

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[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 such an account, that the novel is worth starting? They will scarcely be encouraged by learning that the book is as unashamedly churchy as its predecessors…. Is this the stuff of which great fiction is made?

Perhaps not great fiction; but of very good fiction, yes. All the people in A Few Green Leaves are completely realistic: the sort of people we meet every day of our lives and never particularly notice; the sort of people, if we are true Pym fans, that we are ourselves. By noticing them in such detail, Miss Pym's art endows them with a significance which they could never possess in life, so that what sound—if they are described outside the context of the book—to be mild and uneventful moments really come over as quite strong.

A. N. Wilson, "Thinking of Being Them," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4034, July 18, 1980, p. 799.

Francis King

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271

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 the advantages that would follow on the demise of his mother-in-law, or that when, on the charabanc exursion, the down-trodden Miss Grundy may or may not have seen a revenant in the country mansion that the party is visiting. But, in general, this is a world in which people are kind to each other and life is kind to them, and in which it is rare for anyone to see visions or to dream any but the most mundane dreams.

The book is beautifully shaped; every character is distinct; and there is not a page that is not irradiated with wit and fun. Here, for some of our more self-important novelists, is an object-lesson in the advantage of knowing one's limitations and never for a moment attempting to exceed them. (p. 22)

Francis King, "Fairly Excellent Woman," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission ot The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7932, July 19, 1980, pp. 21-2.

Penelope Fitzgerald

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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 silver-framed photograph', over someone whose mother lives in Putney. And in the course of the struggle strange fragments of conversation float to the surface, lyrical moments dear to Barbara Pym.

'An anthropophagist,' declared Miss Doggett in an authoritative tone. 'He does some kind of scientific work, I believe.'

'I thought it meant a cannibal—someone who ate human flesh,' said Jane in wonder.

'Well, science has made such strides,' said Miss Doggett doubtfully….

As might be expected, however, of such a brilliant comic writer, the issues are not comic at all. Three kinds of conflict recur throughout Barbara Pym's novels: growing old (on which she concentrated in the deeply touching Quartet in Autumn; hanging on to some kind of individuality, however crushed, however dim; and adjusting the vexatious distance between men and women. These, indeed, are novels without heroes…. If men are less than angels, Barbara Pym's men are rather less than men, not wanting much more than constant attention and comfort…. Women see through them clearly enough, but are drawn towards them by their own need and by a compassion which is taken entirely for granted. Men are allowed, indeed conditioned, to deceive themselves to the end, and are loved as self-deceivers.

Women have their resource—the romantic imagination. This faculty, which Jane Austen (and James Joyce, for that matter) considered so destructive, is the secret 'richness' of Barbara Pym's heroines….

Barbara Pym nevertheless guards against sentimentality. She is the writer who points out 'the desire to do good without much personal inconvenience that lurks in most of us', the regrettable things said between friends and 'the satisfaction which is to be got from saying precisely things of that kind', the irritation we feel 'when we have made up our minds to dislike people for no apparent reason and they perform a kind action'. But towards her characters she shows a creator's charity. She understands them so well that the least she can do is to forgive them….

Through all Barbara Pym's work there is a consistency of texture, as well as of background. She has described the texture herself as 'pain, amusement, surprise, resignation'.

Penelope Fitzgerald, "A Secret Richness" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, November 20-December 4, 1980, p. 19.

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Pym, Barbara (Vol. 13)