If you don’t know who Barbara Pym is, you’re missing out. I’m going to give you a quick introduction here in the hope that you may enjoy her books as much as I have.
(This is the debut of a new series of blog posts in which I share some of my appreciation for my favorite authors or books or other cool things out there. My theory is that if you’re curious enough about my stuff to pop in here, you’d probably like some recommendations of stuff I like. I may be inviting some fellow authors to guest post in this series, too.)
If you love Jane Austen for her social commentary and not just her romance, you’re likely to love Pym. Like Jane Austen, Pym was English, though she was born over 130 years later. Both write about gentlewomen in distress. Their heroines struggle for dignity and love in a society that has little concern for single women of limited means. Many of their heroines have either seen a reduction in their status, or are at great risk of it.
Austen and Pym are also both very, very funny.
In Austen’s novels, a love-match to a good man of property is what signals the heroine’s ultimate triumph. In Pym’s novels, first published mostly in the.1950s and 60s, there is not always that definitive a resolution, but there are certainly plenty of romantic longings, and much finely observed social comedy along the way.
Pym finds both delight and absurdity in the rituals of daily life. Her characters are often fellow parishioners in the local Anglican Church (either in villages or London neighborhoods) or anthropologists on the hunt in one way or another. Her men are caddish or hapless but somehow still appealing. Her supporting women exhibit various degrees of thoughtlessness, clumsiness, competitiveness, or eccentricity, while her heroines strive to maintain a sort of cheerful, desperate dignity.
Pym’s take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Here she is in probably the first book I ever read of hers, Excellent Women:
Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.
In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.
Ha! It boggles my mind that this was the novel, after six others found publication, at which her publisher and all other British publishers balked, sending Pym into an exile from her readers that she found baffling and distressing, as any author would. She didn’t stop writing, though.
Where to start reading Pym probably depends on your tastes, but if they are anything like mine, do not begin with either The Sweet Dove Died or Quartet in Autumn, the more modern novels that she published after both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil called her “the most underrated novelist of the century” and rescued her from obscurity. These are not typical works of hers and definitely not my favorites, though I do not regret reading them.
My favorite Barbara Pym novel of all — and I am probably in the minority in this — is A Few Green Leaves, the one she rushed to finish before she died of breast cancer in 1980. In this village story, a lonely anthropologist longs for a close relationship with any man, though the sweetly hapless local vicar is clearly a better sort than another potential candidate. As in many Barbara Pym novels, love and the local parish are a source of both comedy and pathos, but their treatment strikes me as more affectionate here than in any of her other books.
There are many other books I haven’t even mentioned, of course. Crampton Hodnet was released posthumously, but it was an early one by a younger Pym and it’s quite funny.
I can’t help reflecting that if Barbara Pym had hit that brick wall with the publishers in our time, she could have turned to self-publishing to keep her loyal fans reading. (Of course, I suppose we could also worry that she might have published the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle too soon and never gotten properly edited or found a wider audience at all.)
If you can’t find Pym in your local bookstore or library, you can find her in the online bookstores today, though not all of her books are still in print, or even available on Kindle, at least in the United States. I hope that is changing, since I do see a few available that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that in a world gone so crazy for Jane Austen (who well deserves it), Barbara Pym isn’t at least fully in print.
Pym’s work also strikes me as great fodder for some fine comedic British costume dramas set in the 50s, like Call the Midwife only less sappy. I’m surprised no one has done it yet (unless they have, and they just haven’t made it to the United States). I do think she could be a little hard to translate onto the screen as fully as one might like, because so much of the humor is going on in people’s heads. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall a la Frank Underwood in House of Cards (but, of course, not at all like Frank Underwood in House of Cards) might help.
(If there is anyone out there who wants to pay me handsomely to have a go at it, just let me know.)Barbara Pym's take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Click To Tweet
If you’ve read Pym, let me know your favorites. If you have another favorite little-known or out-of-print author, I’d love to hear about that, too!