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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

British novelist Barbara Pym began keeping a diary while a student at the University of Oxford in the 1930’s. Using excerpts from these diaries, from her later, less formal notebooks, and from some of her letters, Pym’s younger sister Hilary and her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt have put...

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British novelist Barbara Pym began keeping a diary while a student at the University of Oxford in the 1930’s. Using excerpts from these diaries, from her later, less formal notebooks, and from some of her letters, Pym’s younger sister Hilary and her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt have put together a different kind of autobiography. Pym tells her own story in her own words, but the two editors have also written small amounts of introductory and explanatory material to fill in the gaps with facts, ideas, and feelings that were not recorded originally to serve such a direct and organized autobiographical function. Yet the author regularly shows that she expected her diaries and notebooks to be published.

Holt’s three-page preface sets forth her personal and professional relationship with Pym, which included twenty-five years together as editors and writers for the International African Institute in London. Hilary Pym, in five pages, provides background details of the Pym family and briefly sketches the childhood of the sisters in Oswestry, Shropshire.

The body of the book is divided into three main parts. Part 1, “Oxford,” covers the 1932-1939 period, when Pym was studying English literature. She remained in Oxford, at least part-time, after completing her degree. During that period she began work on her first novel, which was not actually completed until 1950, when it was published under the title Some Tame Gazelle. Part 2 covers the years of World War II; during that time, Pym joined and ultimately became an officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The four subdivisions reflect both chronological and thematic concerns: “Adapting to the War” covers the period from 1940 to 1942, when England was suffering air raids; Pym wrote in a letter to Henry Harvey and his wife, Elsie, in Stockholm, “Wars aren’t what they used to be in Victorian times, when they were fought abroad decently by professional soldiers!” Demonstrating both the passing of time and the connections between Pym’s private life, the war, and “ordinary” life, the editors cover 1943 and part of 1944 with two sections related to when she started new diaries. They are titled “Christmas I” (1942) and “Christmas II” (1943). Sometimes there are large gaps in time unaccounted for during these war years; for example, the ten-month period between diary entries of November 21, 1943, and September 17, 1944, includes but one letter, written to Harvey, on May 26, 1944. The last section of her war and prepublication years is titled “Naples” and reflects her life in Italy with the navy, working at her job as a censor. This part of her life came to an end with her discharge on January 11, 1946.

Although she went to work that same year for the International African Institute, the entries in the autobiography do not begin until early in 1948. The last of these three main parts of the book, “The Novelist,” consists of three sections, the first devoted to the 1948 to 1963 period, when six novels were published in rapid order. The second covers the 1963 to 1977 period, when no publisher wanted to print what she wrote. It concludes with the period from 1977 until her death in 1980, when renewed publication brought greater fame than before. Four new novels were published, three during her lifetime and one posthumously. The 334 pages of the autobiography itself are followed by a bibliography and brief publication history of the novels and a comprehensive index and glossary, the glossary being the inclusion of nicknames and other aids to cross-referencing. The book contains twelve pages of photographs.

The principal recipients of her letters were Henry Harvey, her first love at Oxford and later a professor at the University of Helsingfors; Robert Liddell, a staff member at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, when Pym met him and later a novelist and critic living primarily in Athens; Philip Larkin, poet, writer on jazz, and librarian at the University of Hull; and Robert Smith, an Oxford graduate and professor of history at the University of Lagos in Nigeria.

A Very Private Eye

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1752

A Very Private Eye adds another chapter to the marvelously improbable and still ongoing saga of Barbara Pym. Published in the summer of 1984 to excellent reviews, this collage drawn from diaries, working notebooks, and letters had forty-five thousand copies in print by the fall of that year. Essential reading for students of Pym’s novels, it is also a fascinating document in its own right.

The Barbara Pym who emerges from these pages has all of the qualities that have attracted readers to her fiction, especially a quirky sense of humor and a spirited delight in the commonplace, yet the picture of her personality and her career is now much fuller, more nuanced and complex. Because she was almost thirty-seven when her first novel was published, in 1950, and because she was (mistakenly) said to have given up writing fiction for the duration of the long hiatus between the rejection of her seventh novel, in 1963, and her “rediscovery” in 1977, reviewers have sometimes condescended to Pym even while praising her, implying that she lacked the resolve, the single-mindedness, the ambition of the serious writer. A Very Private Eye should correct this misperception, for it reveals the extent to which Pym’s was truly a writer’s life.

The volume begins with a useful preface by coeditor Hazel Holt. Holt, Pym’s literary executor and for many years her coworker on the staff of the International African Institute in London, recounts the origin of A Very Private Eye and places it in the context of Pym’s work. In 1931, when she was about eighteen, Pym began to keep a diary, which she maintained, with some breaks, through World War II. “After the war,” Holt explains, “she gave up keeping a formal diary, writing instead in a series of small notebooks, from 1948 until her death in 1980.” In these eighty-two spiral-bound notebooks (which, like the diaries and all of Pym’s manuscripts, including several unpublished novels, repose in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University), Pym “recorded not only events but random thoughts and ideas for her novels, so that they are, in effect, working notebooks.” A Very Private Eye, then, consists of selections from the diaries and notebooks, in chronological sequence, mixed with letters by Pym to various correspondents; each chronological section is informatively and wittily introduced by Holt.

Also helpful—and frequently amusing—is the superb index. From the biographical notes in the index, for example, one learns the subsequent fate of some of the people who figured largely in Pym’s Oxford years; quotations of poetry are indexed, as are references to Pym’s fictional characters. Some readers will be particularly grateful for another service provided by the index: definitions of slang. Thus, when one reads that “After supper Honor and I Baldwinned our legs,” one can turn to find that a “Baldwin” is “a glove made of emery paper to defuzz legs.” Similarly, the reader who is baffled by a description of certain undergarments—“blue celanese trollies—pink suspender belt—pink kestos—white vest”—will find enlightenment in the index.

Hilary Pym, Barbara’s sister and Holt’s coeditor, has provided a brief background chapter, “The Early Life,” sketching her sister’s life up to the time she entered the university. Barbara Mary Crampton Pym, the eldest of the two daughters of Frederic Crampton Pym and Irena Spenser Pym, née Thomas, was born on June 2, 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire, near the Welsh border. Frederick Pym, a solicitor, was the illegitimate son of a domestic servant—a fact which Hilary Pym uncovered only after Barbara’s death. The Pym family was reasonably prosperous; in Hilary’s account, theirs was “a happy, unclouded childhood,” with animals and music and amateur theatricals and much churchgoing. When she was twelve, Barbara was sent to a boarding school, Liverpool College, Huyton; she went up to Oxford, where she read English, in 1931.

The main text of A Very Private Eye is divided into three parts: “Oxford” (1932-1939), “The War” (1940-1945), and “The Novelist” (1948-1980; there is a gap in the immediate postwar years). In one important respect, the sequence of these headings is misleading, for although, as noted above, Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was not published until 1950, she was nevertheless a novelist long before that time. In fact, although revised after the war, Some Tame Gazelle was written at Oxford—Pym was twenty-two when she first sent it to a publisher—and indeed, as Holt notes in her introduction to the Oxford section, Pym had completed her first attempt at a novel, “Young Men in Fancy Dress” (unpublished), when she was only sixteen. Through the rest of her life, there was never a long period in which she was not at work on a novel; she finished her last one, A Few Green Leaves, only two months before her death and had already outlined another novel which she did not live to write.

Thus, even when she began her diary as an eighteen-year-old undergraduate, Pym was already writing consciously as a writer. It is true that the diary as a form, despite its apparent directness and relative freedom from artifice, requires the diarist, in Walter Ong’s words, to “fictionalize the reader”: The diarist “must construct in his imagination, clearly or vaguely, an audience cast in some sort of role.” To whom is a diary addressed? After all, “the diarist pretending to be talking to himself has also, since he is writing, to pretend he is somehow not there.” Still, if the diary as a form demands an imaginative projection akin to that required by fiction writing, it remains the case that Barbara Pym as a diarist was from the beginning exceptionally aware of these demands. In her diary as much as in her fiction, she was writing with a consciousness that her seemingly private words would one day be read by others; in an entry for February 20, 1941, she went so far as to anticipate their eventual destination, writing of “this diary, this sentimental journal or whatever you (Gentle Reader in the Bodleian) like to call it.”

If the girl who went up to Oxford in 1931 was in some ways exceptional, she was in other ways very much a child of her time and her class. On a trip to Germany in 1934, she saw Adolf Hitler: “I thought he looked smooth and clean, and was very impressed.” Politically naïve, she was more concerned with flirting with German men; indeed, her principal preoccupation while at Oxford was romance, and the diary’s record of her various affairs is by turns lyrical, poignant, cloying, and comic. Her great love was unrequited: In 1933, she fell in love with a student two years her senior, Henry Harvey, whom she dubbed “Lorenzo.” (Before they met, she followed him, learned all she could about his background; she had a lifelong passion for such unorthodox amateur detective work, which she called “research into the lives of ordinary people.”) When, in 1937, he married a Finnish girl, she was devastated.

This unhappy love established a pattern which was to recur throughout her life, and yet side-by-side with her unabashed romanticism, the diary reveals Pym’s delightful and extraordinary capacity for comic observation of herself and others, including the objects of her love. In Some Tame Gazelle, the twenty-two-year-old lovestruck girl imagined herself and her sister Hilary as middle-aged spinsters, with Harvey transformed into a rather pompous archdeacon whom one of the sisters (Barbara’s counterpart) loved in her youth and still loves out of habit. This striking metamorphosis—how many twenty-two-year-olds are capable of imagining themselves as women well advanced into middle age?—suggests some of the fascination of A Very Private Eye, the interplay between Pym-the-observer and Pym-the-observed.

By the end of 1940, Pym had completed three novels in addition to Some Tame Gazelle and had done the first draft of another, her “spy novel,” as she called it; one of the three, Crampton Hodnet, written in 1939-1940, was published in 1985. In 1941, required to register for war service, she chose a job in censorship in Bristol, where Hilary was working for the BBC. During this period, Pym had another unhappy love affair, “very serious on her part, perhaps less so on his,” with a radio writer and broadcaster whose estranged wife (a divorce was in progress) was a good friend of Pym. In 1943, Pym joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), working in naval censorship; in 1944, she was posted to Naples, Italy, returning to England in July, 1945.

In 1946, Pym joined the staff of the London-based International African Institute, where she served as assistant editor of the Institute’s journal, Africa, and performed other related editorial tasks. As readers of her novels know, this work was a fertile source of inspiration. Many of Pym’s portraits of anthropologists are wickedly funny, and her eye for the pretensions of the academic world was unerring, yet there was also a genuine correspondence between the discipline of anthropology and her own “research”—a parallel noted in her books, as when one of her fictional anthropologists asks: “Haven’t the novelist and the anthropologist more in common than some people think?” It was at this time, in the early stages of her work at the Institute, that, as foreshadowed in Some Tame Gazelle, she began to share an apartment with Hilary, who had separated from her husband; the sisters were to live together until Barbara’s death.

Pym’s life after the publication of Some Tame Gazelle—the series of beautifully crafted and richly comic novels of the 1950’s; the bitterly discouraging years in which, as numerous publishers told her, her kind of writing was out of fashion; the fairy-tale rediscovery of her work and the novels that followed to great acclaim; the growing Barbara Pym cult, flourishing especially in the United States—all of this has been documented in many feature articles. Still, neither the articles nor the novels prepare the reader for the courage, the pathos, but above all the wonderful individuality, the fresh idiosyncratic vision of the notebook entries and letters of these later years.

In her preface, Holt notes that “It is now possible to describe a place, a situation or a person as ’very Barbara Pym’. She is one of that small band of writers who have created a self-contained world.” The notion of a writer “creating a world” is a cliché, and an unfashionable one at that, but A Very Private Eye, along with Pym’s novels, gives life to this worn-out tribute.


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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

Burkhart, Charles. The Pleasure of Miss Pym, 1987.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 23, 1984, p. 21.

Goldstein, William. “A Novel, a Biography, a Play: A Peek Inside the Pym Estate,” in Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII (October 4, 1985), p. 43.

Library Journal. CIX, June 1, 1984, p. 1126.

Long, Robert Emmet. Barbara Pym, 1986.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 5, 1984, p. 1.

Nardin, Jane. Barbara Pym, 1985.

Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 21.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, August 16, 1984, p. 15.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 8, 1984, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LX, July 16, 1984, p. 91.

Newsweek. CIV, July 23, 1984, p. 64.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 4, 1984, p. 46.

Rossen, Janice. The World of Barbara Pym, 1987.

Salwak, Dale, ed. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym, 1987.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, July 3, 1984, p. 22.

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