Barbara Pym in Henley

By May, Radmila | Contemporary Review, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Barbara Pym in Henley


May, Radmila, Contemporary Review


Barbara Pym (1913-1990) has been described as one of the finest of modern English novelists, with novels of English gentlewomen so reminiscent of Jane Austen. She read English at St. Hilda's College Oxford (1931-1934) and served during World War II in the Wrens. She never married. After the War she worked at the International African Institute as Assistant Editor of the Institute's journal. She retired in 1974 and moved to Finstock in Oxfordshire where she lived with her sister until her death.

Barbara Pym's publishing history was as extraordinary as her life was ordinary (or apparently so). Her first six novels were published by Jonathan Cape: Some Tame Gazelle (1950); Excellent Women (1952); Jane and Prudence (1953); Less Than Angels (1955); A Glass of Blessings (1958); No Fond Return of Love (1961). Sales were respectable but not remarkable. Then, in 1963, Cape, now under the aegis of a new editor, Tom Maschler, turned down her seventh novel An Unsuitable Attachment. Thereafter, for sixteen years, she was unpublished although she continued to write and to submit manuscripts to publishers. And those novels already published were still read and admired. Then, in January 1977, The Times Literary Supplement published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Barbara Pym was the only writer to be named twice, by Philip Larkin the poet and Lord David Cecil the literary critic and former Goldsmith's Professor of English Literature at Oxford. Overnight Barbara became 'republishable'. Three weeks later Macmillan accepted her novel Quartet in Autumn (1977) which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Macmillan published The Sweet Dove Died in 1978. A Few Green Leaves was published posthumously in 1980; this was followed by works written earlier (sometimes much earlier, i.e. pre-war): An Unsuitable Attachment (1982), Crampton Hodnet (1985), An Academic Question (1986) and Civil to Strangers (short stories etc.) (1987), all published by Macmillan as were A Very Private Eye (1984), extracts from her diaries, letters and notebooks, edited by Hazel Holt, and the biography A Lot to Ask by Hazel Holt (1990). The novels were also published in paperback.

Throughout her life she kept diaries and notebooks in which she recorded her observations of all that happened around her. These were the raw material for all her novels. In her diary for the 14th July 1978, she wrote '... dinner with Henry [Harvey] and the Barnicots. Forty years and more I have known them, I thought as I sat there talking.'

This is the only post-War reference in A Very Private Eye to Barbara's continuing friendship with my parents John and Elizabeth Barnicot. Yet there must be many more in her unpublished diaries for Barbara stayed with us in our house in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, on a number of occasions.

There are, of course, many pre-War references to my father in A Very Private Eye. He had met Barbara at Oxford where he, like her, was one of a group on which many of the characters in Some Tame Gazelle are based. (Although the book was not published until 1950, she had completed a first draft after coming down from Oxford.) Other members of that group included Henry Harvey with whom she had been very much in love while at Oxford [Archdeacon Hoccleve] and Robert 'Jock' Liddell [Dr. Nicholas Parnell]. Henry often visited us in Henley and his second wife, Susi, stayed with us for some weeks before their wedding. Sadly, Henry died in October 1995. Robert Liddell I never met although he was my godfather.

The character in Some Tame Gazelle for whom my father was the inspiration was John Akenside. Akenside is dead - killed by a stray bullet in a riot in Prague - before the story starts but is mourned by his friend Count Riccardo Bianco (based on another of Barbara's friends). Like Akenside my father had travelled extensively in the Balkans in the early thirties. After that, so far from being shot, accidentally or otherwise, he returned to Oxford where he worked in the Bodleian specialising in Old Slavonic books. …

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