BARBARA PYM. An appreciation by Michael Jongen
The revival of interest in Pym’s delightful comedies of manners is well-deserved.
‘Of course it’s all right for librarians to smell of drink.’ – Barbara Pym, Less Than Angels
I came to Barbara Pym late, through reading many comparisons to EF Benson and Jane Austen. My introduction was Crampton Hodnet (2012 edition), which featured an appreciative introduction from Louis De Bernieres. These new editions of the Barbara Pym novels are all graced with fan letters from well-known writers. (The introduction by Jilly Cooper to Jane and Prudence is wonderful and places Barbara Pym firmly within the canon of English literature.)
Crampton Hodnet was first published in 1985, five years after Pym’s death. It had been written during the Second World War and it appears that she did not think that the themes resonated in the immediate aftermath of war.
Reading it in 2015 was a sheer delight. We are introduced to the formidable Miss Doggett and her companion Miss Morrow, life in North Oxford and the fictional Crampton Hodnet, where clergymen visit when life’s small dramas get too much. It is, as the Daily Mail said ‘… so very, very, English’. The themes of Pym’s work emerge easily and comfortably as we live through the concerns of the English provincial middle class.
Miss Doggett loves keeping an eye on her small community and giving tea parties for young academics and clergymen. Miss Morrow keeps a wry detached eye on proceedings and life. Miss Doggett’s great-niece, Anthea, falls in love, while her father – an Oxford don – is conducting a most unsuitable liaison, and an unmarried clergyman comes to lodge with them. Misunderstanding and apathy from an eccentric cast of characters decorate the plot but the comedy is always undercut with pathos.
I immediately read Quartet in Autumn (1977), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This was a comeback novel for Pym; she had not been published for 15 years and had fallen out of favour. I found it quite bleak and fascinating. Mrs Thatcher, not yet in government but on the ascendant, features in this drably drawn London novel. Again Pym deftly brings her themes into this story of four office workers in Bloomsbury and their dull and stultifying lives, seemingly defeated and restrained by the prevailing social conventions. Reading this I wondered if Pym realised how powerful an indictment this might be to those who dreamed of returning to a pre-Thatcherite England. There is still humour, but it is bitter. I did not find any echoes of Benson or Austen here, more Kingsley Amis.
I was also fascinated by Pym’s continuing preoccupation with the Anglican traditions and the high versus low church debate. I admired her ability to create flawed but endearing personalities that encapsulated the greater issues of life and to respect that while an ending may not be happy, it can be satisfactory.
Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was first published in 1950. Her second novel, and her most celebrated, Excellent Women, was published in 1952. The plot of Excellent Women is again simple. Our narrator, Mildred, is seemingly comfortable but her need to share a bathroom is evidence of the genteel poverty that undercuts the choices of so many of Pym’s single women characters. This is a novel that truly deserves to be compared with Austen, and is populated with characters who could have lived at Mansfield Park. Mildred’s life becomes enriched when new neighbours, Helen Napier and her husband, the charming Rocky, enter the story. It is a novel of delicious misunderstandings and deliberate obtuseness. Again the characters, through indolence, view proceedings with a detached eye and rarely take action:
‘We, my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier . . . Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation.’
It is understandable that this was Pym’s most successful comedy of manners. The title reflects an ironical approach to its subject – the ‘excellent women’ who provided support and menial labour to the church. It was followed in 1953 by Jane and Prudence, which I read straight afterwards.
Jane and Prudence is a comic masterpiece and my pleasure was enhanced by the inclusion of Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow from Crampton Hodnet, still then unpublished. Jane and Prudence maintain their friendship when Jane and her clergyman husband move to a rural parish. Jane is concerned about Prudence and her unsuitable affairs, and tries to effect a relationship between her friend and the local widower:
Prue hadn’t really been in love with Fabian. Indeed, it was obvious that at times she found him both boring and irritating. But wasn’t that what so many marriages were – finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring, or irritating?
As always, the role of the ‘excellent women’ and high and low church politics feature. Jane ruminates in a way that reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie, as she contemplates her incompetence as a clergyman’s wife and wonders what else she might have achieved. Of the four Pym novels I found this the most personally satisfying because it comes closest to what might be described as a happy ending. Although I wonder if reading Crampton Hodnet is a prerequisite for finding it so?
Pym published three more novels before she fell out of favour in the 1960s. Although still popular and read, her publishers regarded her as old-fashioned. Other publishers declined her work. As is well-documented, Barbara Pym was the subject of an appreciation in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977 by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin. Her comeback novel was Quartet in Autumn and she published two more well-received novels before retiring to Oxfordshire, where she lived with her sister until her death in 1980 of breast cancer at age 65.
Barbara Pym firmly placed her novels in village and suburban life, and her style and rich characters dominate often thin plots. Her novels are comedies of manners underlined with poignancy. She closely interrogated the relationships between men and women with a sense of irony. These are deep works with timeless transferable themes underpinned by a sure comic touch. Pym was regarded as a pioneer in writing unambiguously gay characters into her novels, and she regularly wrote about librarians: ‘Dulcie always found a public library a little upsetting, for one saw so many odd people there …’
I look forward to reading the remainder of the Pym oeuvre over the next few years.
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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