Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Barbara Pym

By chance, my January reading looks as if it will be dominated by biographies: James Kaplan on Sinatra, Michael Korda on T. E. Lawrence, and Edmund Morris on Teddy Roosevelt. And while all three are subjects of great interest to me, people whose lives and works are fascinating enough that even merely passable biographies remain interesting, as I look at that stack of books I worry that I might tire of reading about ostentatiously manly men doing Great Things.

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.

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.
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.

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."


  1. I purchased all the Pyms in the world in hardcover when she was first reissued and sated myself. After that, for many years I would see with a little irritation the oddly colored spines on my shelves, as untouched as a Pym heroine. While other writers clamor to be picked up again- these ladies sit happily inviolate. I can't really figure out who I was to be once so enthralled and I certainly don't yet feel that it is time to rediscover that inner spinster... but it is oddly validating that others find her just as breathtaking as I might once have.

  2. You have prompted me to get Pym's novels off the shelf (the phrase seems apt for a writer many of whose characters saw themselves, or were seen by others, as 'on the shelf'). I especially love Excellent Women, but my favourite Pym moment, I think, is when Marcia in Quartet in Autumn decides to accept an invitation to a lunch party purely because she wants to return someone else's milk bottle: ' occurred to her that it would be a golden opportunity to return the alien milk bottle to Letty',(the phrase
    'golden opportunity' in the context is a master stroke, I think).

  3. For another contrast to the Roosevelt book, I suggest Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady by Sylvia Jukes Morris, wife of Edmund Morris.

  4. I've been reading Pym lately. Just finished, in quick succession, No Fond Return of Love, and A Glass of Blessings; am currently reading An Unsuitable Attachment and have ordered all the 50s books which I'm very much looking forward to reading.

    I think the Compton-Burnett and Iris Murdoch comparisons are spot on. In fact she kind of suggests to me of what sort of writer Murdoch would have been if, as Compton-Burnett wished, Murdoch had studied "domestic science" or trained to be a Norland nurse, instead of studying philosophy.