Admirers of Barbara Pym have several regrets. The greatest is that there aren’t more of her novels. Pym would undoubtedly have written more had she lived longer, for her death in 1980 occurred at a time of renewed productivity. She certainly would have written more had she not suffered 14 years of publishers’ rejections.
Pym’s novels have a flavor all their own. “It is now possible to describe a place, a situation or a person as Very Barbara Pym,'” writes editor Hazel Holt in the preface to Pym’s letters and diaries. The initially striking thing about the novels is their quaint, “dated” quality. Set in and around London in the decades after the Second World War, they are filled with churchgoing spinsters, dowdy clergymen’s wives, and busy “excellent women” (a phrase she used as a title); Pym writes about less-than-glamorous, often charmingly befuddled people.
Though most are light and satirical, the novels all have an underlying sense of resignation and defeat. Even with her first published and most cheerful novel, Some Tame Gazelle, a sense of cramped lives and forgone opportunities underlies the comedy. And the feeling only grows as we read the later works. Although there is little desperation or longing expressed in the novels, her protagonists convey an incompleteness and a partial failure that gives them a special appeal.
It is possible to trace in Pym’s diaries and letters a darkening spirit as the uninhibited, lovelorn (and continually disappointed) Oxford student turns into a woman who begins to realize that she may never marry. She passionately falls into love again and again, always to be rejected, and never to forget those old flames. In 1943, at age 29, she writes to her first love (long married to someone else) that yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the first evening they spent together. “Yes, it was in 1933 and we went to the Trout and played pingpong and ate mixed grill and the wistaria was out.” A decade later, she writes in her diary: “To receive a love letter and to be eating honey on a June morning (in a bed-sitting room in London). This was in 1939—me in Upper Berkeley Street. The letter was from Jay and the honey from Jock (Miel d’Hymette) from Athens.” Such memories and reflections dot the diaries.
Two events are equal in power to this continual disappointment in love: her publisher’s sudden refusal in 1963 to publish any more of her novels and her surgery for cancer in 1971. Both clearly affect the tone and content of the novels.
But equally impressive is how her novels reveal the larger world around her and specifically the declining economic and social conditions in Britain. Though decidedly nonpolitical—they do not attack Britain’s welfare state or even address it, they do not extol private property or even discuss it as such, and Pym does not blame her heroines’ troubles on economic forces—Pym’s writing faithfully depicts a decline of a world larger than the self. Yet, in her diaries, Pym even chides herself for ignoring world events: “It occurred to me that were I to look in this volume in three years time what dreariness I should find. One would hardly know that there was a war on at all, and certainly not have any idea that I was an intelligent and presumably thinking person. Or perhaps I do think a little, but not about anything that really matters to anyone except myself.” Actually, her comedies convey, more effectively than economic treatises, Britain’s poverty of physical goods and—far more important—its poverty of vitality and hope.
Pym published six novels between 1950 and 1961. Then, in 1963, her publisher, the British firm Jonathan Cape, refused to publish the next one. She revised it, to no avail, and wrote another, which she eventually sent to 21 publishers. All declined, and the literary world simply forgot Barbara Pym. At one low point, Pym wrote, “Now I just jot things down in my notebooks, lacking the courage to start anything again though I suppose I will one day.”
In 1977, an article in the Times Literary Supplement reported that two prominent literary figures—Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil—had cited Pym as one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century. That article launched a reappraisal of her work. Today, she is widely lauded, treated as a serious writer, and often compared with Jane Austen. All 12 of her novels, plus selections from her diaries and letters, have been published. Unfortunately, Pym’s death occurred before she could experience the full flowering of critical attention.
Since Pym’s novels never changed their approach or content (although Pym did consciously try to choose more “contemporary” themes), we may be tempted to conclude that her books were simply out of step with the unrestrained era of the 1960’s, and the mounting costs of publishing. Yet, throughout her writing, while everyone else was dazzled by Twiggy and the Beatles, Pym captured a different and more penetrating picture of her country.
Isa Kapp, in a 1983 essay about Pym in The American Scholar, calls Pym’s heroines “dignified anachronisms,” and titles her essay, “Out of the Swim with Barbara Pym.” But Pym is not a 19th-century writer who just happens to be writing in the wrong century. While her most memorable characters fuss over altar flowers and entertain curates on quiet evenings, she also has thoroughly modern heroines such as a successful free-lance writer and an aging woman who likes to spend evenings with a gay male friend.
Moreover, Pym’s characters are “out of the swim” not because they ignore the 20th century but because they tend to hang back, instead of taking action. They are observers, interpreters (though less than fully articulate) of what goes on around them. Excessively cerebral, they ponder and worry a lot. They don’t talk much about the decline of the English economy, but they see it, feel it, and resign themselves to it. (In the same way, they muddle through the sexual revolution.) Through their maunderings, Pym reveals not only the amusing and sometimes heartrending foibles of human beings but also the extent and depth of the “British disease.”
Few of Pym’s heroines dress well, for example. They shop at jumble sales and are often, like Emma Howick of A Few Green Leaves, “the type that the women’s magazines used to make a feature of ‘improving.'” The London flat of another heroine is furnished “in a way that is sometimes described as ‘bohemian’ but which is just as often the result of not being able to buy quite enough furniture and carpets.”
Hardly anyone eats well. In the early novels, set during or just after the war, the plain repasts (“cold meat with beetroot and no potatoes”) make sense. But by the late 1970’s, people are still eating “macaroni au gratin with chips” and “baked beans on toast with a poached egg on top.”
These descriptions are not inadvertent or inevitable. In real life, Pym liked nice clothes and enjoyed good food. “After dinner I changed out of my chiffon into my scarlet satin blouse and black skirt,” she notes in her diary during her Oxford days. Her dinners ran more to “fish, duck and green peas, peaches and cream, sherry, Niersteiner and port” than to baked beans. But her novels are full of genteel poverty and accommodation to limited resources.
The dwindling of hope and expectation on a national scale corresponded with Pym’s own experience, as we have seen, and with her psychological affinities as a novelist. In Some Tame Gazelle, though written in her 20’s when she was still ebullient and full of hope, Pym captures the inner core of her first romance and gives it a dominant role. The comedy that she builds on this foundation is a testimony to her capacity for unsentimental observation.
In Gazelle, it is many years later, and the enthusiastic lovestruck girl has become Belinda Bede, an aging spinster who harbors a decades-long unrequited affection for Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve, a pompous lightweight long married to someone else. We learn how, over the years, Belinda’s passion “had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning.”
Quartet in Autumn (1977) brings together her personal experience and her understanding of the surrounding social conditions more vividly than any other. Written after Pym had given up hope that any of her new novels would ever be published, it also incorporates her experience of having cancer surgery. At the same time, the book draws a direct link between the stifling of economic opportunity and the crushing of human vitality.
Quartet explores the effect of death and impending death on people who have little to look back on and nothing to look forward to. Four elderly people—Marcia, Letty, Edwin, and Norman—inhabit a world of unarticulated and barely felt emotions, share the thinnest of conversations, and take part in the dullest of routines. The interplay of their feelings is so subtle that the novel is difficult to synopsize—as its title suggests, it is more like music than a story.
These four work in an office together, but the reader never finds out just what they do. “The activities of their department seemed to be shrouded in mystery—something to do with records or filing, it was thought, nobody knew for certain. . . . The most significant thing about it was that nobody was replacing them, indeed the whole department was being phased out and only being kept on until the men working in it reach retirement age.” (What more telling symbol of a once-vigorous nation on the wane?)
The four are not really friends, just office mates, but they are almost the only acquaintances each one has. When a tenuous relationship with her office acquaintances ends through retirement, Marcia becomes increasingly alienated and odd, rarely venturing from home, obsessively accumulating glass milk bottles and plastic bags.
Just as the unnamed office work is a pointless ritual that accomplishes nothing, the safety net of the social welfare state proves completely ineffective. It is not long before Marcia is found unconscious in her kitchen and dies soon after. Janice Brabner, representative of the welfare state—a “voluntary” social worker who talks about her visitations to the elderly as a “job”—worries over this event. Janice had tried to communicate with Marcia, but failed. And while she tells herself that Marcia’s collapse “in no way reflected on the social services,” she concedes to herself that “there might possibly have been a lack of liaison, that Miss Ivory might be said to have fallen through the net, that dreaded phrase. . . . “
Marcia’s death gives her previously insignificant life a tangible impact. For Marcia owned property—a house. Through the disposition of that property, she changes the life of Norman, one of her three companions. Property, the relic of a more materialistic and supposedly less humane era, makes concrete the ephemeral connections between Marcia and Norman.
In most of Pym’s books (which are far more upbeat than Quartet) social comment is less direct, but just as deeply embedded. In nearly all the novels, early and late, the low status of women is pervasive. Nearly all the women hold inferior, even menial jobs—in spite of excellent educations and apparent capability. Prudence Bates in Jane and Prudence is typical. An Oxford graduate, she is a “sort of personal assistant to Dr. Grampian,” she explains. “I look after the humdrum side of his work, seeing books through the press and that kind of thing.”
Parallel to the women’s low status is their mental apathy or resignation. Prudence’s friend Jane Cleveland, looking around during her Oxford reunion, observes how little the graduates have accomplished, in spite of their early promise. She thinks about her “own stillborn ‘research,'” the subject of which she can’t quite recall—”Donne, was it, and his influence on some later, obscurer poet?”
Jane goes on to express dissatisfaction with what she chose as her life—being a clergyman’s wife. She had hoped to be one of those “gallant, cheerful clergyman’s wives, who ran large houses and families on far too little money. . . . ” But she had failed at that. She only had one child, while “other qualities which she did not possess and which seemed impossible to acquire were apparently necessary,” she muses.
In contrast to Pym’s women, who labor diligently at tedious jobs, the men they work for have generally achieved limited success—but not through hard work or even merit. Certainly, Aylwin Forbes, the supposedly brilliant editor of a literary journal in No Fond Return of Love, shows little competence. Jessica Foy, a librarian listening to him lecture, observes to herself that he has an “exceptionally able assistant editor” working under him (a woman). Aylwin, she is sure, knows little about the problems of an editor, even though that is the subject of his lecture.
Men like Aylwin usually have found a toehold in a solid, traditional hierarchy. While such sinecures are not especially rewarding, they supply the trappings of accomplishment. Aylwin has found his place in the academic-literary world, just as Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve finds it in the Church of England. In a society characterized by slow growth, the old hierarchies are the only hierarchies, and those who find a place there are the “old boys,” often regardless of merit.
One of the ways to attain such a position is to attract competent and self-effacing young women to do the work and cover the failings. The women recognize the injustice of the situation, but accept it, even embrace it. “Research, with a good-looking man,” Jessica says to another woman. “That’s an enviable lot.” Most of the women cater to the men’s weaknesses. They aren’t fooled—some mentally take note of how childlike and silly the men often are—but they go along.
How much of this lowly status and mood of resignation relates directly to Pym’s own experience? As an editor employed by the International African Institute in London, Pym’s day-to-day life was formally similar to that of women such as Prudence. But to Pym it was not “humdrum”; it was a job she took seriously and one that provided material for her novels. Writing to Philip Larkin in 1973, she remarks that the Institute (which, she implies, may have outlived its usefulness) “is a rich subject for fiction if one can look at it with a novelist’s cruelly dispassionate eye, as I fear I sometimes can.”
Like her heroines, however, Pym accepts the status quo when it comes to men. We see in her diaries how she kept on loving men who rejected her, and she rarely criticizes them or condescends to them (except in the case of Henry Harvey, her first love; even years later, her letters bristle with barely disguised anger). In her novels, we see what lilliputians Archdeacon Hoccleve or Aylwin Forbes are—and we sense the futility and absurdity of a society that elevates them to honored posts.
A few years ago, Michele Slung, writing in the Washington Post‘s “Book World,” described the world of Barbara Pym’s novels as simultaneously “cosy” and “bleak.” It is cosy because it is simple, humdrum, and physically secure. It is bleak because to live this way means that Pym’s people, especially her heroines, have given up opportunities and withdrawn into narrow confines, both spiritual and physical. Together, the “British disease” and Pym’s own sense of resignation dispassionately combine to create poignant comedies.
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