The "Enviable Detachment" of the Anthropologist: Barbara Pym's Anthropological Aesthetic

By Fulton, Joe B. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The "Enviable Detachment" of the Anthropologist: Barbara Pym's Anthropological Aesthetic


Fulton, Joe B., Papers on Language & Literature


After graduating from Oxford, and fresh from a stint as a Wren (the British equivalent of a Wave) during the Second World War, British novelist Barbara Pym embarked on a career at the International African Institute as Assistant Editor both for scholarly monographs and for the anthropology journal Africa. From 1946 to 1974, she edited the work of anthropologists, juggling production deadlines and academic egos even as she wrote her novels in what spare moments she could salvage. Pym's position at Africa was hardly a nine-to-five job, and between the writing of the anthropologists and her own, she lived what she called a "divided life" (Private 271).

Pym's attitude toward anthropology was similarly divided. While she often referred to the anthropologists and their work in less than flattering terms, calling the former "irritating" and the latter "dull," Pym herself adopted an anthropological sensibility (Private 205, 220). Consider, for example, a letter Pym wrote to poet Philip Larkin, in which she describes a dinner party she attended:

We had a "Festschrift" presentation to Daryll Forde a couple of weeks ago--he is retiring from University College London. A volume of essays had been contributed by his old students, called Man in Africa, published by Tavistock. Of course, these occasions are never quite as one would make them in fiction, except that one prominent linguist was seen surreptitiously refilling his glass when the presentation was being made. I was also struck by the number of academic women who appeared to have made really no effort at all--obviously none of that agonized "But what shall I wear?"--really an enviable detachment and when will one ever reach it? (Private 249-50)

This is a typically Pymish comedic deflation of the anthropologists, but at the same time Pym makes a serious point; the anthropologists seem oblivious to the norms of their own society and to the idea that someone might be observing them. Pym herself seems less a participant in the activities than an observer, and one might suggest she had reached a state of "enviable detachment" that allowed her to observe so precisely the human comedy unfolding before her. Observing the scientists, she becomes an anthropologist herself, and her precise observations suggest she was making "field" notes about behavior in an alien culture. Note that the famous linguist refills his glass when, that is, at the moment the presentation is made. How did she know, unless she, too, were more observer than participant and watched not the presentation per se, but the entire scene?

Many critics have commented on Pym's parodies of anthropology and anthropologists, focusing on the biting humor. Pym makes fun of the anthropologists, the argument goes, because they remain for her "irritating writers," a convenient focus for her frustration that she could not subsist solely on the income from her own writing. A few have argued that her criticisms are less personal and more fundamental. Michael Cotsell, for example, contends that Pym's writers usually practice "what Lawrence called knowing-in-togetherness" while her anthropologists use a "knowing-in-apartness" (69). In Less Than Angels, he continues, Pym "gives a fierce twist to this relation" by having Catherine adopt the "knowing-in-apartness" of the scientists (47). Far from being an anomaly, Less Than Angels is central to Pym's aesthetic for precisely this mediation between detachment and community; the book is the perfect example of Pym's anthropological aesthetic that demonstrates the complex contribution her work with the anthropologists' writing at the Institute had on her own writing.

During the composition of Less Than Angels, Pym transcribed the following passage in her diary: "`It is important that not even the slightest expression of amusement or disapproval should ever be displayed at the description of ridiculous, impossible or disgusting features in custom, cult or legend. …

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