Barbara Pym's Affectionate Irony
Carter, Betty Smartt, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
By the time I came of reading age--old enough to pass the portals of the library's "youth department"--the 1960s were past. I'd missed the cultural upheaval, but our family bookshelves told tales of surrender. Paperback copies of Catch-22 and The Naked Ape crouched like gargoyles among leather-bound Victorian classics; Charlotte Bronte rubbed shoulders with Kurt Vonnegut and Truman Capote.
It wasn't clear how or when the gargoyles had made their way in among the saints, but, as I read through our library, I realized that books themselves must have changed dramatically since my grandparents wrote their names in the covers of Robinson Crusoe and Lay of the Last Minstrel The newer books in our house--the psychedelic paperbacks with covers that shouted A HUNDRED THOUSAND COPIES SOLD! or NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!--all belonged to my teenage siblings. Nobody made books for "old" people anymore, that was obvious, and it never occurred to me that the situation might be unfair, even when my mother complained that she couldn't find anything decent to read.
Some of this may help explain the story of the British writer Barbara Pym. I discovered Pym in my sophomore year of college, thanks to a friend who gave me her 1958 novel, A Glass of Blessings. I loved the book for its understated humor, the way its heroine, Wilmet, mocks her own lack of direction as she drifts through a world divided into church jumble sales, dull sherry parties, and a secret crush on a man who turns out to have a live-in "friend" named Keith. Though the copy was a reprint, I still thought we'd stumbled onto some lost treasure, a forgotten library gem. Soon enough I realized that what I'd stumbled onto was a gigantic literary bandwagon. In 1985, everybody seemed to be reading Barbara Pym, though she herself had been dead for several years.
Of course, people had different reactions to her. There were readers like me who became annoyingly obsessed with her novels; even our vocabulary reflected it. Whatever slang we'd been speaking before Barbara Pym, we quit using it and started tossing around tweedy words like unpleasantness and cloakroom. Against the advice of our teachers, we took to using the pronoun one as in "One regrets the unpleasantness in the cloakroom." Less-besotted readers enjoyed Barbara Pym but lumped her in with Miss Read and other writers of "gentle fiction," a condescending term if there ever was one.
Still others couldn't see any attraction at all in Pym's stories about women who dote on men and men who accept feminine devotion as their due. They considered her work depressing (men, she said herself, often found it so), uneventful, or simply shallow. A professor of mine said that he found her fiction (he'd read only one novel) "nothing but fluff." How, he asked, could John Updike have praised her so highly?
For me, the most difficult criticism to answer is that Pym is thematically shallow. Some of this impression comes from her published diaries and letters, A Very Private Eye, organized posthumously by her sister and literary executor. The collection, read from beginning to end, reveals a complicated, perceptive woman who grew enormously over a lifetime. It remains, however, the young Barbara who speaks first and leaves the most lasting impression: a giddy Oxford co-ed with a passion for "our greater English poets" and a greater passion for beautiful young men. The most consistent object of her affection was Henry Harvey, a medievalist who ran with an intellectual set, including the future literary critic Robert Liddell. Henry was prickly and difficult, but as an intermittent Lothario he had a druglike effect on poor Barbara. She couldn't seem to get free of him.
It's hard, from Pym's own writings, to get a clear picture of this off-kilter romance. (Plenty of readers have tried to picture it, especially the scene in the diaries where Robert Liddell caught the two of them "reading Samson Agonistes in bed with nothing on. …