Magazine article The Spectator

Serpents in Suburbia

Magazine article The Spectator

Serpents in Suburbia

Article excerpt

'Rather to my surprise, ' Barbara Pym wrote to her friend Philip Larkin in 1971, 'I have nearly finished the first draft of another novel about a provincial university told by the youngish wife of a lecturer. It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort, but of course it hasn't turned out like that at all.'

The novel was An Academic Question - witty, sharp, light as a syllabub, nothing like anything by Margaret Drabble and with a cast of typically Pym-like English eccentrics.

There is Kitty Jeffreys, who commanded an army of servants on a Caribbean island until the locals unfeelingly elected an all-black government and forced her into exile.

Her son, Coco, is a fastidious bachelor with a passion for gossip; her sister, Dolly, runs a ramshackle second-hand bookshop and obsessively tends hedgehogs.

And these are just the minor characters.

In the foreground are the narrator, Caro Grimstone, and her ambitious anthropologist husband, Alan. Caro has a four-year-old daughter and a Swedish au pair, and is longing to find a proper role for herself before the boredom drives her crazy. Other academic wives are 'helpmeets' who type or index their husband's publications and are thanked in the acknowledgments, but Alan does his own typing and is secretive about his work - and he spends a worrying amount of time with his glamorous colleague, Iris Horniblow.

An Academic Question may not be archetypal Pym (no clergymen or 'drearily splendid' spinsters), but it couldn't have been written by anyone else. The freshness, wit and general good nature of this book are all the more remarkable because Pym wrote it without any real hope of getting it published, right in the middle of her 15 years in literary outer darkness.

By the time she finished the first draft in 1971, the novels Pym had produced throughout the 1950s had fallen deeply out of fashion. Despite her loyal readership and history of decent sales, she had not been published for years, and was beginning to think she would never get back into print. 'It is a wonder to me now, ' she wrote sadly in 1970, 'that I ever published anything.'

Even with no hope of being published, however, Pym could not stop being a novelist. As she wrote in her diary, 'It seems unnatural not to be writing bits for novels in one's notebook.' She couldn't sit in a cafe or walk down a street without putting down some detail that delighted her, such as a man eating his sandwiches with a knife and fork.

'Oh why can't I write things like that any more - why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?'

It's a famous story now, with a famous happy ending. In 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked various distinguished writers and critics to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century, and both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil chose Barbara Pym. The time was suddenly ripe for her rediscovery, and when Pym's novels were reissued, she found herself a celebrity and a bestseller. In the short time between her rebirth as a published writer and her death in 1980 she produced superb new novels: Quartet in Autumn (shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize), The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and A Few Green Leaves (1980).

An Academic Question didn't appear until 1986. Shortly after finishing the first draft, Pym had to deal with the major distraction of treatment for breast cancer, and when she took up the story again she had lost heart. …

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