In 1977, the Times Literary Supplement polled several well-known British critics and authors and asked them to name the most underrated writer of the previous 75 years. Barbara Pym was the only writer to receive two votes, one from the poet Philip Larkin and one from the biographer Lord David Cecil, who said that Pym's "unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels...are for me the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years." Although the poll results led to a resurgence of interest in Pym and in her novels, I think that she may still be one of the most underrated writers of the last 75 years. And speaking very personally, I'd like that to change.
Barbara Pym was born in 1913 and raised in Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. She attended St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she majored in English Literature. After she graduated, she wrote her first novel Some Tame Gazelle, which she completed when she was 22 but which was not published until 1950. During World War II, she worked first at the Censorship Office and then as a WREN (for the Women's Royal Naval Service). When the war ended, she took a job at the International African Institute in London and became the assistant editor for the journal Africa. After the publication of Some Tame Gazelle, Pym released a new novel every few years: Excellent Women in 1952, Jane and Prudence in 1953, Less than Angels in 1955, A Glass of Blessings in 1958 and No Fond Return of Love in 1961. Writing in 1977, Philip Larkin said that "the six novels of Barbara Pym published between 1950 and 1961...give an unrivaled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England. She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life"
When Pym submitted her next novel to her publisher in 1963, it was rejected for being out of fashion with the times. And for the remainder of the 1960s and most of the 1970s, she was unable to publish anything at all. All of that changed, of course, after the 1977 Times Literary Supplement poll results were released. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was published later that year and was shortlisted for the 1977 Man Booker Prize. Her next novel, The Sweet Dove Died, was published the following year. It was a critical and popular success, and all of her previous novels were rushed back into print. In early 1980, Pym published A Few Green Leaves. She passed away later that year. Two additional novels were published posthumously, An Unsuitable Attachment in 1982 and Crampton Hodnet in 1985.
Thus there are 12, and only 12, Pym novels. Once you discover Pym, you will wish there were more. The world she depicts is genteel, literary, mostly female and almost exclusively British. When you start one of Pym's novels, as I did a few weeks ago (the particularly good A Glass of Blessings), you are immediately in an arena that feels comfortable and familiar. Whether set in a specific and contained area of London or in a village in the English countryside, whether focused on clergy or academics or civil servants or office clerks, each of Pym's novels explores the same set of themes: relationships between men and women, friendships among women and the experience of being an unmarried woman of a certain age. And sitting just beneath this gentle surface is a slightly salty, very witty intelligence. Pym is usually compared to Jane Austen, an author she adored, but Pym's themes are darker, her reality more nuanced and honest.
There is a duality that is central to all of Pym's works: the triviality of the every day, illustrated by work, social interactions and annoyances and the small comforts of eating and drinking, and the grandiosity of romance, aspiration, and longing for love. The women of Pym's novels rarely do anything bold or unconventional. They are not ambitious. Catherine Oliphant, the protagonist of Less than Angels, remarks: "the smallest things were often so much bigger than the great things...the trivial pleasures like cooking, one's home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard." But the mental worlds of Pym's women are vast. They speculate and fantasize, they invent pasts and futures for their friends, and they develop crushes on clergymen and academics. Despite those infatuations, Pym's women rarely marry, in part because marriage does not seem to be an improvement on their current lives and in part because Pym's men are often self-important, demanding and slightly silly people who rely on women to take care of the logistical and emotional challenges of life. Here is Dr. Parnell from Some Tame Gazelle, who says that "liking the same things for dinner is one of the most lasting things you could possibly have in common with anyone. After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved."
Reading Pym illustrates how shrewd an observer she was of a specific type of middle-class, almost middle-aged woman, who is otherwise likely to be overlooked, as well as of the people that these perceptive women themselves observe. Barbara Pym saw and described the absurdity in the way humans behave towards each other, and her leading ladies are unsentimental without being unkind. Writing about Pym in the New York Times in 1983, Anatole Broyard described her female characters as having "an irrepressible honesty -- not the aggressive, hurtful kind, but the sort that involuntarily corrects a mistake simply because the truth is so much more interesting." I have read all but one of Pym's novels, and when I read that, I think I'm going to start re-reading them, something I rarely do. Her world is just that enjoyable, just that intelligent, and very much like putting on your favorite sweater and settling in. In these unsettled times, Pym is a perfect read.