Everyday Barbara Pym

By McClay, B. D. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 2016 | Go to article overview

Everyday Barbara Pym


McClay, B. D., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


In 1943, mourning the end of a short-lived love affair that would leave her (even months later) sitting "desolately by the fire shivering uncontrollably with an aching head and longing to be cherished," Barbara Pym recorded walking by a pre-Raphaelite tomb and brooding a little. At this point her diary takes a turn:

You (reader) may say, Why do you make such a thing of it all? To which I will snap (like Trivia) Well, what about your own life? Is it so full of large, big wonderful things that you don't need tombs and daffodils and your own special intolerable bird, with an old armchair or two and occasional readings from Matthew Arnold and Coventry Patmore?

In '43, Pym was not even a published novelist (and would not be for several years). She was her own reader, both chiding herself and coming to her own defense. But it was this kind of two-step, from sorrow to humor and back again, that came to define what was best in her fiction. After 1963, when she experienced a rather different sort of rejection-when no one would publish her anymore-she repeated this sharp question in a slightly different way: "What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia?... What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?"

Pym's own life can be summed up in short order: born 1913, died 1980. In between: an Oxford education, twelve novels, lifelong spinsterhood, and a thriving correspondence with many friends, including Philip Larkin. Beginning in 1950, she published six decently successful novels only to be shown the door by Jonathan Cape, her publishing house, on the grounds that "in present conditions we could not sell a sufficient number of copies to cover costs." Many years of rejection followed, only for Pym to be gloriously reinstated by the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, when two separate critics picked her as the most underrated novelist of the past seventy-five years. In the wave of interest that followed, she was even nominated for the Booker Prize. All the novels that she wrote in isolation were published, though she did not live to see them all in print, as she soon died of cancer.

And the books? They are full of spinster heroines, tea, Anglican clergymen, jumble sales, and the occasional marriage; cheery romance and metaphysical poetry and humorous observation. "They've moved me to a new office and I don't like it at all," a bureaucrat glumly observes in her second book, Excellent Women, published in 1952. "Different pigeons come to the windows." These were the books "obsessed with trivia," which, to Pym, eventually came to represent something so unfashionable that it could be, perhaps, of interest to no one but her. Or, if they were of interest to others-the kinds of people who had once gotten books out of the private lending libraries-they were not of interest to the sort of person that book publishers had in mind.

Whether or not she deserved this rejection is, in a sense, what every treatment of Pym is left trying to answer. "How Pleasant to Know Miss Pym" (1971), by her friend Robert Smith, was the first big essay on Pym and a conscious effort to get her published again, but ended up being a somewhat backhanded series of compliments. Smith set out to try to prove that her books were more than "books for a bad day," but along the way he conceded that her books were "small beer," that her style is "flat and rather featureless," and that her books stand mostly as "a record of their time."

So here's my own line: Pym's "value," if I wish to employ such a word, is not in an anthropological recording of the experience of middle-class unmarried English women in the mid-twentieth century. It is, instead, in opening up something that is sad and absurd and lovable about life, as witnessed by those who are not quite at the center of it and who therefore are able to see things a little more clearly. Though they are constantly going to church, her characters live at a level of triviality that keeps them from ever hitting the agonizing levels one might find in, for instance, a Graham Greene novel of the same period. …

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