A Very Private Eye

by Barbara Pym
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1293

Barbara Pym’s diaries, letters, and notebooks show that she had four major interests in life: writing novels, reading literature, being a faithful supporter of the Anglican church, and getting married. Her words do not necessarily establish the priority of these goals in the order listed. She achieved the first three; she was never married. Had she not been the author of ten published novels, however, her autobiography probably never would have been published. Thus, it is the relationship between how she viewed her life and what she says in her fiction that gives this book its primary reason for being. The book probably conveys special impressions to the readers of Pym’s novels, but it still draws, in its own right, a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, sentimental, and loving woman whose life and thoughts can be enjoyed for their own sake.

Pym knew by the age of twenty-one that she wanted to be a writer, saying in a diary entry of September 1, 1934, that she had started writing a novel about herself and her sister living together as spinsters in their fifties. Her youthful prediction, in what eventually became Some Tame Gazelle, was in large part true. Her sister was married but then divorced, and the two of them lived together in their later years. Her expressions of the pleasures and pains of being a writer occupy a large portion of the book. She saw herself as fulfilled finally only by writing, yet writing was difficult and she was not, in the early years, being published. In a diary entry dated April 7, 1940, she tells of her reluctance to get down to writing while at the same time feeling that no day was a good one if a few pages of writing were not accomplished. She complained to herself about the small amount of writing she had done that year but also said that she did not have the motivation she had felt in the past: “I am no longer so certain of a glorious future as I used to be—though I still feel that I may ultimately succeed.” She was still unpublished. She concludes this particular entry by saying that reading and domestic concerns may keep her “quite happy. But it isn’t really enough, soon I shall be discontended with myself, out will come the novel and after I’ve written a few pages I shall feel on top of the world again.”

If writing itself could put her on top of the world, rejection of her manuscripts by publishers put her into other states of mind. Writing to Harvey on August 20, 1936, Pym said that Jonathan Cape, a publishing house, had agreed to take another look at her novel, but that she was only mildly hopeful about its acceptance and expected to cry when she got it back. Yet there are no exclamations of joy (because she apparently did not record any) over the final 1949 acceptance of this first novel. The absence of her feelings at that time is an example of the gaps that this particular kind of autobiography leaves in the full depiction of a life.

The different numbers of entries that occur within similar time periods suggest that once publication came her way, Pym’s writing of letters and of diary entries had to be forgone in favor of working on her novels. The entries for the period from 1949 to 1963 require only twenty-nine pages, but the equally long period from 1963 to 1977, when she could not get any new novels published, is covered in seventy-four pages. The entries for the 1963-1977 period regularly express her belief that most of her difficulty in achieving new publication was the result not of any diminution of her powers as a novelist but of changes in tastes and attitudes brought about in the tumultuous 1960’s. She stated in a letter of January 26, 1970, that a publisher would not accept The Sweet Dove Died (published in 1978) “Only . . . because it seems a risk commercially.” Speaking of another reader’s praise of her manuscript, she says that from it she gained confidence that she could still write, even though the books that she was writing were not then publishable. Her explanation for the fourteen-year dry spell gains credence from what happened in 1977, in a world more ready to read Pym’s satirical and witty novels about the social mores in English intellectual and middle-class circles.

On January 21, 1977, The Times Literary Supplement published a survey of literary figures naming the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only living author named twice, by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil.

Instant attention followed. As Pym herself says in a notebook entry of the following day, she had been contacted by a radio station official and her British publisher had said to a reporter that reprints of her earlier novels might be considered. Pym’s comment was “That’ll be the frosty Friday!” She turned out to be in error, however, because within two years, and following the 1977 publication of Quartet in Autumn in the United States, Cape had reissued all six of the earlier novels.

The resulting fame and the cancer that would take her life in less than three years did not affect Pym’s ironic sense of humor and biting tongue. Writing to her friend Bob Smith on October 25, 1978, about her being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she said, “I haven’t yet been able to go up and sign the book (and have my hand held by the president at my inauguration) but I have paid my subscription and that surely must be the main point.”

If being a writer was Pym’s primary passion, being a woman who needed the love of a man certainly ran a strong second. Writing in her notebook in her forty-second year, she strongly implies her own failure to find a satisfying love: “Perhaps to be loved is the most cosy thing in life and yet many people, women I suppose I mean, know only the uncertainties of love, which is only sometimes cosy when one accepts one’s situation (rarely perhaps).”

Although Pym may have in the course of her life written many letters to women, this book is composed almost exclusively of letters to men. The one female recipient is Elsie Harvey, the wife of Pym’s first love, Henry; Pym wrote to her in an ironic, sometimes patronizing, tone. For example, she was only twenty-five when she wrote, “You would not expect an old woman to change her ways, would you?” She predicted that Elsie “would be shocked” if Pym were “suddenly to marry” but added that “there seems to be no chance of that.” Five years earlier (in 1934), Pym had apparently been deeply in love with and, from her point of view, been badly treated by Henry. Writing about Henry’s attention to another girl, Pym stated that she was so unhappy that she burst into tears and “cried more” than she had for a long time.

Henry was lost in the 1930’s, but following two marriages he returned to her life in the 1970’s. She records his coming to tea on February 17, 1976, at which time, because it was cold, she burned some pages of a 1943 diary. She says that the lover who “inspired” the diary is dead. Then she speculates in a way that neatly brings together her human and literary loves: “Could one write a book (a sort of novel) based on one’s diaries over about 30 years? I certainly have enough material.” Despite such lost diaries and the absence of any letters to members of her family, this is a book that has enough material about her personality and her thoughts to serve as an autobiography.

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