The Life and Work of Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym’s life was one of quiet happiness and sorrow, of modest success and painful rejection, and of sudden fame when, ironically, she had little time left to enjoy it.
In Dale Salwak’s The Life and Work of Barbara Pym, the woman and author is considered by nineteen writers, several of whom knew her personally. In part 1, friends recall Pym; the essayists in part 2 analyze and evaluate her novels from several perspectives; the writers in part 3 discuss the rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment (1982) and its effect on Pym; the rediscovery and final success of a rejected author; and the connections among Pym’s novels and ways in which the novels relate to those who read them. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym closes with Gail Godwin briefly celebrating the novelist who “recorded and preserved a corner of English life that was important to her while the sixties raced by on the highroad.”
What has been called the Cinderella story of Pym’s unusual publishing career has often been told, partly by Pym herself, then in her later years and after her death (in 1980) by a number of other writers. Details of the story are scattered in accounts by several contributors to Life and Work.
Pym’s first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was issued by Jonathan Cape in 1950. Cape then published five more Pym novels: Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). Since her novels had been well received by both the critics and the public, Pym expected a ready acceptance of her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment; but Cape rejected it in 1963 with the explanation that, as Pym wrote a friend, “they doubted whether they could sell enough copies to make a profit.”
Pym discovered that not only did Cape not want her novels; no other publishers did either. She had to endure this rejection until 1977, when a remarkable turn of fortune occurred. In The Times Literary Supplement both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin cited Pym as one of the “most underrated” novelists of the century.
Quickly, Macmillan accepted two novels that Pym had written during her years of rejection. Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and The Sweet Dove Died in 1978, when it became a best-seller. Cape then reissued the six earlier novels (1977-1979), and E. P. Dutton, in the United States, published Excellent Women, The Sweet Dove Died, and Quartet in Autumn, all in 1978.
Pym, who had a mastectomy in 1971, followed by strokes in 1974 and 1975, was now suffering from terminal cancer. She finished her last novel, A Few Green Leaves, not long before she died in 1980. It was published later in the year. An Unsuitable Attachment, which Cape had rejected in 1963, was finally published in 1982 by both Macmillan and Dutton. A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters appeared in England and America in 1984. Pym’s early satirical novel, Crampton Hodnet, was published in 1985. Another early novel, An Academic Question, came out in 1986, and the list of Pym’s finished novels was complete. Several apprentice novels and a number of short stories and other writings remain in manuscript, but an anthology of unpublished Pym writings is being prepared by Hazel Holt, her friend of many years. (Readers who are interested in a more detailed discussion of Pym’s manuscripts, personal diaries, and working notebooks, collected at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, will want to consult Janice Rossen’s essay “The Pym Papers,” one of the most valuable contributions to The Life and Work of Barbara Pym.)
Pym was a born writer who penned her first novel at sixteen and wrote several others during her twenties. The revised edition of Some Tame Gazelle, originally written shortly after Pym’s graduation from Oxford, was not accepted by Cape until she was thirty-six, a rather late age to bring out one’s supposed first novel. A less dedicated writer might have been tempted to give up when no publisher would take her seventh, but to Pym writing was a necessary part of living.
In a radio talk in 1978 called “Finding a Voice,” she told of her feelings after An Unsuitable Attachment had been refused by several publishers. “It was an awful and humiliating sensation to be totally rejected after all those years, and I didn’t know what to do about it.” Yet, she continued, “I did go on writing, even in the face of discouragement.” She not only revised An Unsuitable Attachment but she also wrote two additional novels and still kept writing even though she repeatedly failed to find a publisher for any of the books.
Fortunately, Pym had a steady though small income from editorial work at the International African Institute in London. Thus, her failure to sell her novels did not leave her destitute. The work at the institute, which lasted from 1946 until her retirement in 1974, provided not only much material which she adapted to her fiction but also the time to write some of it, as Pym’s boss was often absent. She once wrote Larkin: “It ought to be enough for anybody to be the Assistant Editor of Africa [the Institute’s quarterly magazine], especially when the Editor is away lecturing for 6 months at Harvard, but I find it isn’t quite.” Holt, Pym’s friend and co-worker at the institute, has said that Pym “could no more stop writing than she could stop breathing.”
In “The Novelist in the Field: 1946-74,” written especially for this volume, Holt pictures the crowded, dingy quarters in which the two of them worked during most of the years before Pym’s retirement. It was such an office atmosphere that Pym had in mind in writing Quartet in Autumn. Dr. Grampian, for whom Prudence Bates reads proof and prepares bibliographies (Jane and Prudence), is drawn from Professor Daryll Forde, for whom...
(The entire section is 2507 words.)