I seem to have been circling round the novelist Barbara Pym most of my writing life. A friendly librarian steered me towards her books when I was still at school. By then I knew that, one way or another, I was going to write fiction as long as I lived.
“You will enjoy Miss Pym,” said the librarian. “All writers do.”
First Encounter With Miss Pym
He was a reserved man with unruly hair and spectacles who hardly ever talked to the customers. My mother’s theory was that he was shy. Personally, I thought he had one foot in a fictional world most of the time and didn’t check in with Planet Earth often enough. Possibly we were both right.
Anyway, he had introduced me to Rosemary Sutcliffe and I trusted him. I borrowed Some Tame Gazelle. It had a rather dull cover but I had learned to ignore trivia like that. (It was actually a first edition, dust jacket preserved in library plastic.) I took it home, excited.
Returning it, I struggled to explain to the friendly librarian. All I could come up with was, “It’s a very lowering sort of book.” (I will come back to this.) He muttered something about my being too young perhaps and we both bowed and retreated to our corners.
But I felt his disappointment keenly. If I’m honest, I still do.
Miss Pym’s Progress
Then, some years later, Miss Pym made the headlines. She had been a modestly successful author throughout the fifties, but nobody much noticed when her books stopped being published. But then the venerable Times Literary Supplement invited its contributors to name the most underrated author of the twentieth century. And Barbara Pym was named twice.
She had been out of print for 16 years.
Now publishers were falling over themselves to publish her next novel. She became a staple of the distinguished Virago Modern Classics list.
Where Oxford don and critic Lord David Cecil in company with distinguished poet Philip Larkin led, others were happy to follow, on both sides of the Atlantic. Her acknowledged enthusiasts include John Updike and Ann Patchett, among others.
In 1994 the Barbara Pym Society was set up, after a weekend gathering at St Hilda’s, her old college, to discuss her work. They organise an annual North American Conference as well as regular meetings.
There’s even a FanFiction prize for a short story “that prominently features one or more characters from Barbara Pym’s published novels, in any setting or situation the author chooses.”
Miss Pym’s Publishing
If you’re wondering why I am calling her Miss Pym instead of something friendlier, it’s because she seemed to like it. She was at Oxford at the time when people called each other by their surnames so she was known to old student mates as Pym. Even poor Pym, sometimes, according to a recent biographer, of which more later.
Although we know that she wrote – and finished – a first novel when she was sixteen, she was no teen prodigy like Georgette Heyer (seventeen, published aged 19), Molly Keane, pen name M J Farrell, (seventeen, published aged 21) or Françoise Sagan (seventeen, published aged 18). She was thirty-seven by the time Cape published Some Tame Gazelle.
A timeline might help:
- 1913 born in Shropshire, father lawyer, mother church organist
- 1931 to St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Reads English, Falls in love painfully. Makes friends.
- 1935, living at home, finishes 1st novel, many rejections, more writing
- 1940 Bristol Censorship Office, falls in love painfully. Joins WRNS
- post war continues to write, shares London flat with sister, more rejections
- 1950 Jonathan Cape publishes Some Tame Gazelle
- 1963, having published 6 Pym novels, J Cape rejects No7. As does everyone else.
- Continues to write, many rejections, retires from day job, leaves London
- 1977 January TLS poll, Macmillan publish Quartet in Autumn
- 1978 Quartet in Autumn short listed for the Booker. She gives a talk on Finding a Voice about her writing history on BBC radio.
Fellow Feeling for Miss Pym
This is where my writerly fellow feeling almost chokes me. It had taken her 16 years since she left Oxford to achieve publication. During that time a lot of rejection came her way. The woman, you feel, had paid her dues. When Cape accepted her, she must have felt justified. She’d made it, at last.
And then Cape said she was out of step with the times and dumped her. To be fair, other publishers agreed when she sent the ms out more widely. Even I can see that she has an almost pathological unawareness of the outside world, at least as it was at the time of writing.
The novels are beautifully written but the dramatic personae are straight out of Antony Trollope. The vicars per head in a Pym novel must have exceeded the norm, even in the 1950s, by several hundred per cent. I’m not at all surprised that she quotes Ivy Compton Burnett, Elizabeth von Arnhim and Trollope himself among her influences in the BBC talk. She was building a fictional world, almost as much as Tolkien.
She said in her BBC talk, “It was an awful and humiliating sensation to be totally rejected after all those years, and I didn’t know what to do about it.” Unbearable!
The Slough of Despond
Even when I was still struggling to enjoy her books, the impact of that awful blow got to me. So did her attempts to find another style or theme or genre. She had, after all, pretty much created her own genre. And I genuinely rejoiced at that triumphant recovery after so many years.
And then I began to help put together the 50th anniversary memoir of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Ploughing through the archives, I was astonished to see that Barbara Pym was one of the judges of the Romantic Novel of the Year in 1974.
She described herself to the Award Organiser as “former novelist”.
Horrified, I took the offending Newsletter to my Senior Compiler, Diane Pearson, author, editor and then President of the RNA.
“Oh yes,” she said. “So sad. She never knew how good she was.” And Diane gave Miss Pym a namecheck in her bio for our book.
She had gone to work for Jonathan Cape aged 16 and read “voraciously and indiscriminately” through Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Beverly Nichols, Arthur Ransom, Ernest Hemingway (very raunchy and disguised under a Dr Doolittle dust jacket), “the essential Proust (difficult), the first Barbara Pym (lovely!) and the early James Bonds.”
I suspect it was Diane who proposed Miss Pym as a judge, now I come to think of it.
Miss Pym the Life
So you will see why my eye, or rather my ear, was immediately caught by a new biography out now. The Adventures of Miss Pym by Paula Byrne was Book of the Week on Radio 4, read perfectly by the wondrous Hattie Morahan. She gives it just the right hint of irony, of courteous interest mingled with faint disbelief – exactly what that Barbara Pym’s novels arouse in me, most of the time.
This is the third account of Barbara Pym’s life that I know of. The first was autobiography, A Very Private Eye, pieced together after her death by her sister Hilary and her literary executor Hazel Holt.
The second was written by Holt, a close friend, long term colleague at the International Africa Institute and fellow writer. It was published in 1992 which will have been about when I read it. I was still trying to engage with those much admired novels, you see, and I thought knowing more about her might help.
In one way it does. Holt is warm and appreciative but realistic. She says, “It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.”
It’s very discreet, as so many of Miss Pym’s close friends and lovers (who often made their way into her books in various guises) were still alive then. But the social history is thirty years closer to the times it talks about. The two are definitely complementary, even when they cover the same ground.
Miss Pym and the Booker Prize
If I were writing this as a story, not only would the Evil Editor at Cape gnash his teeth and rue the day (it was Tom Maschler, and I think he did, a bit). she would win the bloody prize.
But, after her death, the BBC had the inspired idea of creating a faction episode around the day when she went to the Booker dinner. It was written by James Runcie – he of the Grantchester series of novels and, so suitably, the son of a former Archibishop of Canterbury. Starring Patricia Routledge as Barbara Pym, it also featured real people from her life, including her sister Hilary and lifelong friend and object of devotion, Henry Harvey.
And for the lowdown on Henry Harvey, Paula Byrne’s book is truly rewarding.
Miss Pym’s Lessons for Authors
1 Never give up. You never know what will happen.
2 If you need to write, write what you want to.
In her BBC talk she said that, after the rejection from Cape and other publishers, she’d thought of trying something different – perhaps a thriller or an historical novel.
In March 1978, she told the RNA that the rejections never stopped her from writing. Then, “Later she went into hospital where she enjoyed reading romantic fiction and began to wonder if she could write it. She even started one, but an entry in her diary for March 1972 reads, ‘I have thoughts of an idea for a new novel, all old, crabby characters, petty, obsessive and bad tempered.'” That became Quartet in Autumn.
3 Make sure you have a day job. Her job at the Africa Institute paid the bills, even when she was published and was, of course, still doing so when no publisher would touch her.
She was a truly admirable writer, in so many ways. I see that I shall have to read her books again. This time I may gain greater understanding, perhaps.
I’m looking forward to it.