24/CHRONICLES OF CULTUREnCOMMENDABLESnFast-Living Frumpnby Daniel HarrisnBarbara Pym: A Very Private Eye: AnnAutobiograpiiy in Diaries and Letters;nEdited by Hazel Holt and HilarynPvm; E. P. Dutton; New York; ‘nSi9.95.n”Be more wicked, if necessary,” BarbaranPym’s agent once suggested as shenre ised her early novels and prepared tonmake her first wild dash through thengaundet of London publishers. “Cannou imagine an old spinster,” she respondedn(she was fast upon the ‘enerablenage of 36), “frowning anxiouslv overnher MS. trying to be more wicked?”nMischie’ous, in her most spiteful momentsnperhaps she could be. Sarcastic?nMaybe, But uicked, in the Mar Mc­nCarthy sense of the word? e er. Thenself-styled frump of modern letters andnthe nicest of British noelists, Pm wasna committed traditionali.st who dug innthe heels of her sensible pumps toncreate a world of kindly curates andnchurch bazaars several hedgerows offnthe thoroughfare of the beaten literarynpath. .s one of the best modern-dayncomediennes of manners, hers was annart of the run in the stocking and thenrouge too red, of the dramas and thentraumas of a world smaller and morenslatternly than life.nIn her own life, however, Pym wasnnot neariy as “excellent” an “excellentnwoman” (to use the epithet she herselfnapplied to the superannuated old maidsnwho putter about her novels scrabblingntea leaes and potato peels) as her fictionnmight lead us to believe. A VerynPrivate Eye, a new pastiche of hernletters and journals stitched together bynher sister Hilary and literary executornHazel Holt, gives us an unexpectednpicture of the more rakish side of MollnPym. Beginning with a bang in 1932nwith the journals she kept at St. Hilda’snat Oxford, and ending with a whimper,na postcard to Philip Larkin just a monthnshort of her untimely death in 1980,nthe book is an immensely readable (ifnoccasionally voyeuristic) peek throughnthe keyhole into the private life of onenof the “most under-rated writers of thenBOOKSHELVESncentury,” as the TLS heralded her.n”As I write this I have a Boncillanbeauty mask on my face—tighteningnmy skin — nice if uncomfortable feeling,”nnotes the sybaritic Pym of thosenearly Oxford vears. At 18 she was alreadynconsidered more precocious thannyour average pigtailed, pennant-wavingnschoolgirl, and certainly not, as she wasnlater to typecast herself, a whalebonecorsetednspinster in embryo. If not thenvamp or the femme fatale, she was, fornher age, a rather extroverted epicureannwho, when torn between “a steamnbeauty bath” and Beowulf, almost invariablynchose the form.er. For Oxfordnin the 1930’s, she lived her life in thenfast-lane, as the large number of veilednreferences (widely meshed veil, at that)nto her active love life suggest.nSometime late in 1932 she developednan obsession, which became one of thenprofoundest influences on her personality,nwith a dashing young studentnwhom she met somewhere in the vicinitvnof the pencil sharpener in the readingnroom of the Bodleian. Henry Harvey,ndubbed Lorenzo, was to appear innnearly every journal entry from then onnfor the next eight years, monopolizingnher attention to the exclusion of practicallynevery other interest and everting anrather demoralizing effect on her selfconfidence.nFor all of the attention henreceives, Harvey remains, perhaps notnsurprisingly, only the blank screen onnwhich she projects her sexual insecuritiesnand therefore a somewhat shadowynfigure in the book. From what onengathers, Lorenzo was something of anLothario, highly critical of Pvm’s appearance,nintimidatingly cavalier, andnmuch less interested in her, alas, thannshe in him.nIn 1934 Harvev left Oxford and tookna position at the University of Helsing-nnnfors, marrying Elsie Godenhjelm threenyears- later. Pym was apparently bitterlvndisappointed and consequendv strucknup with them, in a spirit of retaliation,nan arch and sarcastic correspondence,nperhaps the most psychologically tellingnof the documents collected in the book.nAdopting the facetious mannerism ofnreferring to herself in the third person,nshe jabs tongue through cheek whennshe describes for the Harvevs’ benefitnthe personal squalor of the life shenleads, now a lovelorn and colorless oldndowager of 24, The skittish tone thatnthese letters strike screeches like chalkndragged across a blackboard. In manv- otnthem, often addressed to “Darling SisternElsie!” she damns herself with thenshriveled-up sobriquet “Miss P>ni,”nwhom she describes as “a spinster lad}’nthought to have been disappointed innlove,” “This so prudent sensible spinster,”nthis “stuffed-shirt,” as she refers tonherself again and again, is “an oldnbrown horse walking with slow majesticndignity” or in one letter “quite a dog,”nwho fritters away her time hooking rugsnor tittering at the witticisms of hernparson at teatime.nThese I, I-vvho-have-nothing lettersnto the Harveys represent Pvm at hernworst, and she was never again to sinknnearly as low into self-pity. What’sninteresting about them is the insightnthey prov ide into the creation of Pym’snpersona of society’s mousey supernumerarynmouldering with her pussvcatsnand unrequited passions somewhere innthe dark wings of the great stage of life.nAs an elaborate charade of selfdeprecationnexecuted in a broad cornmediandelVarte, her correspondencenwith the Harveys marks the beginningnof her persistent habit of fictionalizingnher experiences to her own intenselvnunflattering disadvantage. Her relationshipnwith Lorenzo really sowed thenseeds of frustration and resentment thatneventually flowered in the desiccatedncaricatures of dowdy “Miss Pym ” who.nfeather dusters in hand, sidle about thenpages of nearly all of her books. In othernwords, after reading this excellent collectionnof letters, her fiction caii be seennas a gaudy and occasionally indulgentnform of self-burlesque, ccnDaniel Harris is a graduate student innEnglish at Harvard.n