So tonight I turn, and will turn again in January, betwixt and between those avatars of masculine achievement, to Barbara Pym. I've written before of the pleasures of Pym; her world of women and the mostly hapless men they alternately coddle and chivvy along couldn't be farther from the perspective I expect I'll find in these biographies of men who self-consciously bestrode the world. Pym's compass is narrow, her casts drawn from a reliable stable of curates and widows, unmarried older ladies and feckless younger men--but from that small range of people and experiences she creates fiction of unforgettable empathy and beauty. Ellie Wymard put it perfectly in an essay in "All This Reading": The Literary World of Barbara Pym:
Pym keeps faith with life itself, even its trivialities.I'm not sure I could find a better way to draw a contrast between the big biographies and Pym's world than to quote a couple of jottings of plots from her notebooks:
For my next--the middle-aged, or elderly novelist and the young man who admires her and is taken in by her.From those bare bones even a newcomer to Pym can begin to get a sense of her approach, of her points of similarity to more highly stylized writers such as Iris Murdoch or even Thomas Hardy, for example--and, more important, her wry, ironic sense of humor. Pym is never caustic like Ivy Compton-Burnett, another influence, and she rarely judges, as Jane Austen occasionally does. We are all, in our ways, silly blunderers in Pym's eyes; how we handle the blundering, and limit its damage, is what matters.
A woman living in the country who has had a hopeless love for a man (wife still living perhaps or religious scruples), then, when he is free she finds that after all he means nothing to her--is this the reward of virtue, this nothingness? Or an enviable calm--(He then, presumably, goes and marries a young girl.)
An old woman living in a village with her two husbands (a modern instance of polyandry) one divorced--but, poor thing, unable to cope on his own.
Nearly all of her dozen novels are in print once again, most from Moyer Bell; I plan to spend the interstices of January reading the four I've not read. You could do far worse for winter reading than to join me.
I'll leave you with a bit from a letter Pym wrote on February 25, 1962 to Philip Larkin, whose championing of her work reestablished her reputation (and career) in the 1970s. Its self-effacing honesty never fails to charm:
If you feel like asking me anything about my 'works' please do--the less great are probably far more explicit than the great, so it wouldn't be like asking Mary McCarthy. On the other hand it is often better not to know things.To which the only sensible reply is, "Indeed."