A Lot to Ask

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Since Barbara Pym’s death in January, 1980, coming all too soon after the storybook “rediscovery” of her work and the critical and popular acclaim that followed, there has been a steady flow of Pymiana: previously unpublished novels and other works; more than a half-dozen book-length critical studies; articles and reminiscences aplenty. Included in this outpouring was A VERY PRIVATE EYE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN DIARIES AND LETTERS (1984), edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym, which gave readers a sense of the shape of Barbara Pym’s life—and, with its tantalizingly fragmentary self-portrait, raised hopes that a good biography might be forthcoming.

A LOT TO ASK doesn’t quite fulfill those hopes. In many ways this volume closely resembles A VERY PRIVATE EYE. It is not a biography in the conventional sense of the term; rather, the book consists of extracts from Pym’s letters (and letters to her), diaries, notebooks (in which she jotted observations to be mined later as well as notes for works in progress), and novels, with running commentary supplied by Holt. The proportion of commentary is much higher in A LOT TO ASK than it was in A VERY PRIVATE EYE, and much of the material quoted from Pym is new (although, as Holt acknowledges in her introduction, some overlap with A VERY PRIVATE EYE was inevitable). Nevertheless, there’s no sustained narrative here, no transformation of the biographer’s raw materials into a biography.

Some reviewers have suggested that the problem with A LOT TO ASK is simply that Pym didn’t lead a very exciting life. That’s an ironic misreading, since Pym herself—who described novelists as anthropologists of everyday life—was an acute observer with a highly developed sense of the drama of the ordinary.

If A LOT TO ASK isn’t a full-fledged biography, it will still be welcomed by many Pym fans. Holt has provided a useful overview of Pym’s life in addition to many delightful snippets in which Pym’s distinctive voice can be heard. There are photographs, notes, and an index; also included is a one-page “Publishing History” of Pym’s works. The whole has been packaged in a dust-jacket that goes with the others on the shelf-full of Pym already published; bless Dutton.