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Posted on 16 Jul 2015 in Non-Fiction | 2 comments

ANN ALLESTREE Barbara Pym: A passionate force. Reviewed by Walter Mason

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barbarapymThis biography is a wonderfully eccentric wander through a rediscovered author’s life.

Few writers generate a cult following that spans decades, and those who do tend to be the most unlikely suspects. One of the select few to inspire manic enthusiasm on the behalf of her readers is the mild-mannered novelist of the 1950s and 60s, Barbara Pym. Miss Pym, as she was referred to by almost everyone, including herself, was an unmarried editor of an academic journal and a keen High Anglican. In her time she was so acutely unfashionable that her publisher dropped her, claiming her mild comedies of manners were unsaleable in the heady publishing atmosphere of the 1960s.

So she retired with her sister to an English village and embraced the flower rota at her local church, keeping busy writing letters, diaries and having rather modest luncheon parties. Her seeming obscurity was not to last, however, and in the 21st century there is a whole industry around this author who has, unexpectedly, became the renewed subject of frenzied fandom. There are Barbara Pym conferences, societies, journals, reissues of the books and now a new biography.

Barbara Pym: A passionate force is a wonderfully eccentric wander through the author’s life, and an utterly delightful read. The biographer Ann Allestree is herself a dedicated flâneur in the best tradition of Pym, poking her head into old houses and places of employment, handing out photocopies of articles and admiring the potted figs of the people she visits in her quest to reconstruct Barbara Pym’s modestly uneventful life.

There are cold, plainly-furnished rooms now rendered period-perfect by new gay owners who have established something of a shrine to Miss Pym. There are chatty vicars who can quote the appearance of their churches on Pym’s pages and explain that now they have a new, quieter telephone than the one she mentioned. Allestree is prone to her own flights of fancy and diversions down paths Pymian, and reading this biography is hardly less pleasurable than reading one of Pym’s own novels. It has turned into one of those rare occasions when a reviewer is sent a book and then seeks out others by its author.

Because of the biography’s constant charm, it seems churlish to raise any sort of criticism. But if I must find a point of dissent it is in Allestree’s assessment of Pym’s religious feeling. The biographer seems to think that the source of the writer’s fervent churchgoing was social rather than devotional, but I think that Pym’s religious impulses were altogether more profound. She was possessed of a subtle but profound mystical bent which she managed to brush aside in a thoroughly English fashion. I can’t imagine that her level of churchgoing wasn’t informed by something substantially deep-seated and metaphysical. Just because she didn’t make a fuss of her religious feeling doesn’t mean she didn’t experience it.

Pym’s novels never bore, flitting as they do from awkward social encounter to brilliant observation to unsettling obsession with unsuitable men. The real men are here to study in this biography, and indeed they were all profoundly unsuitable: gay, married or 18 years younger. Miss Pym was not as straitlaced as she may have appeared in her autumn years. She loved men, a matter acutely evident in her books, though she never managed to settle down with one. It would appear that she loved writing even more, and one of the striking aspects of this terrific book is just how inspiring Pym’s authorial technique was. She was a painstaking keeper of notebooks and diaries, and she would transcribe and file all of the observations from the spiral pads she carried with her, ready to use in later novels, sometimes years down the track. She was a spy with a great memory, and she portrayed characters with an economy and comedy almost unmatched in 20th-century fiction.

When she moved to a small village outside Oxford with her sister in 1972, Miss Pym had entirely given up on the literary world, which had rejected her. Until she was rediscovered, that is, in a really big way. She was named in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977 as one of Britain’s greatest underrated writers, not just once, but twice, one of the people nominating her being the acclaimed poet Philip Larkin. Suddenly the frowsy, thoroughly middle-class Pym, a persona non grata through the swinging 60s, was a hot property, being interviewed on radio and television, her unpublished manuscripts sought after and competed for. This rediscovery is a big part of the source of the Pym mystique. Her career is a kind of literary fairytale, the thing that all writers wish could happen to them.

Grasping the import of Pym’s charming books, Allestree brings a fan-girl fluster to her account of the author’s life, and the pages fairly crackle with the energy of her love for her subject. The reader comes away with a great deal of affection for Pym, with her talent for friendships – 20 years of correspondence with the famously difficult Philip Larkin – and her brilliantly subtle writing, writing that brings to life what Allestree describes as ‘the wily delineations of the church and village rank’ – even when that village is a London suburb.

This is a book that will delight any Pym fan, and which I am certain will intrigue anyone who has never read her. Painterly, quaintly old-fashioned and richly clever, Barbara Pym: A passionate force is a genuine paean to a literary icon whose time seems to constantly recur. Read it at your own risk – it will whisper to you to take further steps in your descent down the rabbit hole of Pym cultdom, a delightful world from which no reader ever returns.

Ann Allestree Barbara Pym: A passionate force Book Guild Publishing, 2015 HB 192pp $41.95

Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

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  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful appreciation of Barbara Pym, which also mentions her spirituality. Her novels, letters and journals all have glimpses of something greater and a yearning for fulfillment. The interplay of this with fate, circumstance and the triumph of daily details – which is classic to the human condition accounts for a lot of the novels wit and insight, as does applying her knowledge of anthropology to the church, and communities. Buddhists as well as C of E have flower rosters! I’m off to order this book.

    • Thank you, Julie, and thanks for your own beautiful insights into Pym’s genius.