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In 1984, a collection of the diaries and letters of Barbara Pym (pihm) was published by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym under the title A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters. In 1987, Holt edited a miscellany of Pym’s writings, Civil to Strangers, and Other Writings ...

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In 1984, a collection of the diaries and letters of Barbara Pym (pihm) was published by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym under the title A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters. In 1987, Holt edited a miscellany of Pym’s writings, Civil to Strangers, and Other Writings, that contained mostly fiction but some nonfiction.


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Barbara Pym was a writer of distinctive qualities who, having suffered discouragement and neglect for fifteen years, was rediscovered toward the end of her life, to take her rightful place as a novelist of considerable originality and force. Often compared favorably with Jane Austen’s novels, Pym’s are essentially those of a private, solitary individual, employing precise social observation, understatement, and gentle irony in an oblique approach to such universal themes as the underlying loneliness and frustrations of life, culture as a force for corruption, love thwarted or satisfied, and the power of the ordinary to sustain and protect the men and women who shelter themselves under it. Also like Austen, Pym has no illusions about herself and very few about other people: “I like to think that what I write gives pleasure and makes my readers smile, even laugh. But my novels are by no means only comedies as I try to reflect life as I see it.”

The story of Pym’s early achievements, her long enforced silence, and her remarkable rediscovery perhaps says more about the publishing world than about either her books or her readers. Between 1949 and 1961, while working as an editorial assistant at the International African Institute, Pym wrote a novel every two years. As each manuscript was finished, she sent it off to Jonathan Cape. Her first six novels established her style, were well received by reviewers, and enjoyed a following among library borrowers. Excellent Women, her most popular novel, sold a little more than six thousand copies.

Then, in 1963, Pym put her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, in the mail. A short time later, it was returned: Times, she was told, had changed. The “swinging sixties” had no place for her gently ironic comedies about unconventional middle-class people leading outwardly uneventful lives. “Novels like An Unsuitable Attachment, despite their qualities, are getting increasingly difficult to sell,” wrote another publisher, while a third regretted that the novel was unsuitable for its list.

Being a woman of determination with a certain modest confidence in herself, Pym went to work on an eighth novel, The Sweet Dove Died; when she sent it off to Cape, however, it too came back. She adopted a pseudonym—“Tom Crampton”—because “it had a swinging air to it,” but twenty publishers turned down the novel. Humiliated and frustrated, she began to feel not only that her new books were no good but also that nothing she had ever written had been good. No Fond Return of Love was serialized by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Portway Reprints reissued five others, Pym’s books retained their popularity among library borrowers, and Robert Smith published an appreciation of her work in the October, 1971, issue of Ariel—but despite these signs of the continuing appeal of her work, Pym could not find a publisher, and by the mid-1970’s, her name appeared to have been forgotten.

A renaissance in Pym’s fortunes came with startling suddenness in 1977, when, to celebrate three-quarters of a century of existence, The Times Literary Supplement invited a number of well-known writers to name the most over- and underrated novelists of the century. Both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil—for years staunch admirers of hers—selected Pym as having been too long neglected, the only living writer to be so distinguished in the poll. Larkin praised her “unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life.” Cecil called her early books “the finest example of high comedy to have appeared in England” in the twentieth century.

The publicity surrounding the article, not surprisingly, had positive effects on Pym’s reputation. Macmillan published her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, near the end of 1977; later it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Cape began to reissue her earlier books; Penguin and Granada planned a series of paperbacks; she was widely interviewed; finally, she appeared on the radio program Desert Island Discs as well as in a television film called Tea with Miss Pym. The Sweet Dove Died was published in 1978, followed by her last novel, the posthumously published A Few Green Leaves (1980). The manuscript of An Unsuitable Attachment was found among her papers after her death and published in 1982 with an introduction written by Philip Larkin. A book was prepared from her diaries and short stories.

Pym’s novels are distinguished by an unobtrusive but perfectly controlled style, a concern with ordinary people and ordinary events, and a constant aim to be readable, to entertain in a world that is uniquely her own. They are also distinguished by a low-key but nevertheless cutting treatment of assumptions of masculine superiority and other sexist notions—all this well in advance of the women’s movement, and without the rhetoric that mars so much feminist fiction. Although hers is a closed world—what Robert Smith called “an enchanted world of small felicities and small mishaps”—it is also real and varied in theme and setting, with its own laws of human conduct and values, its peculiar humor and pathos. Middle-aged or elderly ladies, middle-aged or elderly gentlemen, civil servants, clergymen, anthropologists and other academics—these are the people about whom Pym develops her stories.

The world in which Pym’s characters live, whether urban or provincial, is also a quiet world—evoked in such detail as to make the reader feel that the action could not possibly take place anywhere else. Taken together, her novels constitute that rare achievement: an independent fictional world, rooted in quotidian reality yet very much the creation of Barbara Pym. Central characters from one novel appear in passing or are briefly mentioned in another; delightful minor characters turn up in unexpected places. This pleasure of cross-references is characteristic of Pym’s art, in which formal dexterity and a marvelous sense of humor harmonize with a modest but unembarrassed moral vision. “I prefer to write about the kind of things I have experienced,” Pym said, “and to put into my novels the kind of details that amuse me in the hope that others will share in this.”

Discussion Topics

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What is the basis of the humor that Barbara Pym finds in the anthropological life?

Can depictions of social cohesion be found in Pym novels?

How does Pym explain why her women characters generally do not choose to marry?

What are the reasons for Pym’s interest in the Anglican Church? Is her perception of the church generally negative?

Are manners more important than morals to Pym?


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Allen, Orphia Jane. Barbara Pym: Writing a Life. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Part 1 discusses Pym’s life and work; part 2 analyzes her novels; part 3 examines different critical approaches to her work and provides a bibliographical essay; part 4 provides a comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography. An extremely useful volume for both beginning students and advanced scholars.

Benet, Diana. Something to Love: Barbara Pym’s Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Benet’s fresh and insightful study examines Pym as “a chronicler of universal problems” whose focus—the many guises of love—moves, shapes, or disfigures all of her major characters. Includes an index.

Burkhart, Charles. The Pleasure of Miss Pym. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. A very readable discussion of Pym’s life and autobiographical writings as well as her fiction through An Academic Question. Focuses on her worldview, the unique nature of her comedy, her religion, her place within the history of the novel, and her insights into man-woman relationships. Includes photographs and an index.

Cotsell, Michael. Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1989. A cogent examination of all Pym’s novels, paying particular attention to her characters’ thoughts and feelings. Cotsell judges the novels to be “unabashedly romantic” and considers Pym’s sense of language, her unpublished writings, and her creative process. Includes an index.

Donato, Deborah. Reading Barbara Pym. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. A biography of Pym which looks at reviews and criticisms of her work, along with the opinions of scholars and other writers of Pym’s time.

Liddell, Robert. A Mind at Ease: Barbara Pym and Her Novels. London: Peter Owen, 1989. In this study, Liddell draws upon his fifty years of friendship with Pym to write a critical survey through Crampton Hodnet. Considers the attention she gave to her characters’ domestic and emotional lives, examines the reasons for her revival in popularity, and guides the reader through her novels, explaining which ones are or are not successful and why.

Long, Robert Emmet. Barbara Pym. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A helpful treatment of Pym’s first eleven novels, paying particular attention to her recurring themes and character types, her modes of social comedy and satire, and her pervasive concern with “unrealized” love and solitude. Finds that Jane Austen’s dynamic English provincial world has reached a point of breakdown in Pym. Includes a chronology, notes, and an index.

Nardin, Jane. Barbara Pym. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An excellent introductory study of Pym’s life and career, noting the origins and development of her themes, character types, and style. Contains a chronology, notes, a bibliography (listing primary and secondary sources), and an index.

Rossen, Janice, ed. Independent Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This collection of ten original essays seeks to test Pym’s reputation by considering her craftsmanship, the literary influences on her work, and her special use of language. Includes biographical, historical, and feminist approaches to explore her unique creative process as it relates to events in her life. Notes and an index are provided.

Rossen, Janice, ed. The World of Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Focuses on twentieth century England as Pym saw, lived, satirized, and enjoyed it. Defines her significance within the framework of the modern British novel, traces her artistic development, explores interrelationships between her life and her fiction, and addresses broader themes regarding British culture in her work, such as spinsterhood, anthropology, English literature, the Anglican Church, and Oxford University. Notes and an index are provided.

Salwak, Dale, ed. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Nineteen essays consider Pym’s life and her novels, as well as her human and artistic achievements, from a variety of fresh perspectives. Includes notes and an index.

Weld, Annette. Barbara Pym and the Novel of Manners. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Chapters on manners and comedy, poems, stories and radio scripts, the early novels, and her major fiction. Includes notes and bibliography.

Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. Barbara Pym: A Critical Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. A fine narrative and analytical biography. See also the introduction: “Creativity and the Life Cycle.” Includes notes and bibliography.

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