Book Review Essay

An Excellent Woman

The story of Barbara Pym’s publishing history is a legend among novelists, or perhaps a haunting. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, appeared in 1950. Among other respectful notices, The Manchester Guardian called it “an enchanting book about village life,” and Pamela Hansford Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Miss Pym’s sharp fresh fun is all her own. There is also an amiable air of scholarship about this novel which I find most pleasing.”[1]

Over the next eleven years, Jonathan Cape, Pym’s publisher, brought out five more of her deft social comedies: Excellent Women, 1952, Jane and Prudence, 1953, Less Than Angels, 1955, A Glass of Blessings, 1958, and No Fond Return of Love in 1961. Philip Larkin wrote that “[Pym’s] books had been well received by reviewers, and she had gained a following among library borrowers; it was time for a breakthrough that would establish her among the dozen or so novelists recognized as original voices and whose books automatically head the review lists.” Larkin had therefore written to Pym, whom he did not then know, saying how much he liked her novels and suggesting that he do an article about them to coincide with the publication of her next. He suggested that she should let him know when it was ready.

Thus secure in her art and her identity as a writer, Pym wrote to Larkin in February 1963 to say that she had sent the typescript of An Unsuitable Attachment off to her publisher. Larkin waited to hear when he might expect a galley for review.

It wasn’t until May that Pym brought herself to write to Larkin to tell him, “after a courteous page of generalities . . . that An Unsuitable Attachment had been rejected.”

In her new biography, archly titled The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym,[2]Paula Byrne tells us, “Nothing could have prepared her for the blow of the rejection. When the letter arrived, cold and informal, with its clear indication that she was not going to be published in the near future, she was devastated and humiliated.”

Byrne has chosen to give the chapter in which she describes this devastating turn in Pym’s fortunes the jokey title “No fond Return to Print.”

Pym’s literary career did not in fact end in 1963, although that shattering letter began a bitter period in which she felt she might for the rest of time be playing to a very small audience or an empty house. For fourteen years she continued to write, because she was a writer, revising An Unsuitable Attachment, completing her lovely late novel, The Sweet Dove Died, and working on a “retire­ment” novel. She did retire from her day job, she experienced a personal heartbreak, she feared pointlessness and depression, and she suffered a dangerous bout of breast cancer resulting in a mastectomy.

Then, for an issue to mark its 75th anniversary in 1977, the Times Literary Supplement invited a range of literary pundits to nominate the most underrated writers of the century to date. The list ran on January 21. Only one living writer was named most underrated by two different contributors: Barbara Pym.

The next day the London Times did a front page piece about the TLS list; regarding Pym, it included a quote from someone at Jonathan Cape, reporting that “they might consider a reprint.” In her notebook, Pym comments, “That’ll be the frosty Friday.” By that time, Cape had rejected two more of her novels and allowed the first six to go out of print.

By mid-February 1977, Pym had a firm offer from Macmillan to publish the “retirement” novel, ultimately titled A Quartet in Autumn. The kerfuffle caused by the TLS list also brought Pym into focus for American publishers. Quartet in Autumn came out in England in September to the sort of reviews that Philip Larkin says she was poised for in 1961. In October 1977, Quartet was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

In the months that followed, there were appreciations, articles, interviews and television appearances. In England, Cape was issuing reprints of the titles they still controlled. The American publisher E. P. Dutton contracted for Quartet and would eventually bring out Pym’s entire backlist, four additional unpublished novels prepared for press by Holt and Pym’s sister Hilary, a volume of her unpublished shorter fiction, Holt’s biography, selections from Pym’s notebooks and letters called A Very Private Eye, and a Barbara Pym cookbook. The Barbara Pym industry was cranking into life, but Pym would not live to see it. By early 1979 her cancer was back, and by January 1980, she was dead.

Barbara Pym was born in 1913 and raised in a loving middle-class family in a country town in Shropshire. She had one sibling, Hilary, to whom she was close all her life. She never married or had children, and she consistently referred to herself as a spinster, as do many of the protagonists of her books. “Spinster” was still a legal term used especially by the Anglican Church when publishing marriage banns, as in “a spinster of this parish,” but it was and is more commonly a derogatory term for an unmarried woman, and an archaic one, given how few now actually spin their own wool. Pym was not a tendentious or political woman, but it was a not-uncomplicated word choice for her, and she meant something by it. What, exactly, is one of the questions one might hope to see answered in any thoughtful re-examination of her life and work.

Pym attended St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, arriving there in 1931. She and her classmates were much less worldly than college women of today, and on the evidence of her letters and diaries, at university she was frankly boy-crazy. On the same evidence, she was attractive but not beautiful, popular with women and men but to the latter far more often viewed as a pal than a requited lover. As an unrequited lover, she tended to obsession. She was without malicious intent, but she was, apparently helplessly, given to stalking those who occupied her attention. This is another subject on which one might hope a contemporary biographer would provide insight beyond Pym’s own musings on the subject. Good luck with that.

Pym liked men, and she liked sex; she had many affairs but lived most of her life alone or with her sister. She was a churchwoman, devoutly but not piously. She needed to work for a living, although Byrne almost never addresses her financial situation. Her day job was with the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, which is how she knew so much about the anthropologists who populate her novels. It was also in this job that she met Hazel Holt, who became her literary executor and with Hilary Pym Walton the first administrator of the Pym industry. Profoundly a writer, Pym began her first novel at sixteen and was at work on her last until the final days of her illness. Her lifelong friend, the writer Robert “Jock” Liddell, wrote of her, “I think I have never known anyone else who was so good all through.”

These are the facts of the life, or some of them. The question is, what are they to the art, and what should literary biography have to do with them?
Readers who love Barbara Pym love her voice. She is an acute observer and describer of things and a gifted portraitist. Her canvas is small, but within it, she is interested in everything: clothes, food, décor, love, kindness, unkindness, self-presentation and self-deception. She is wryly and quietly funny. With each novel, she gives us a new version of her world, and their incre­mental changes of focus and sympathy are fascinating. Whether you share her concerns or preoccupations or want to live in her world hardly matters; the achievement is that she takes something real and moving and multidimensional and gets it onto the flat page, completely alive.

We are interested in the lives of writers in appreciation of a gift, hoping to understand the endlessly interesting alchemy of a particular kind and size of talent expressed through a particular personality. Pym was always reworking The Marriage Story, but she is the anti-Austen, in that her protagonists rarely marry. She was never in the happy ending business. To be concerned, deeply and with knowledge, about the daily lives of people whose lives do not center around mates or descendants, whose jobs are hum­drum, whose interests are, without irony, organized around church and the clergy, are all far on the margins of current literary trends. And yet Shirley Hazzard called her work “penetrating, tender, and for these times, greatly daring,” and said “there is a thrill of humanity through all her work.” So now more than ever, an evaluation of Pym in the context of her life and period, so different from our own, especially for women, by a writer of a new generation with perspective that Hazel Holt could not have brought to the task, should be a cause for celebration. This one is not.

The Pym whom we meet in these pages is not the woman described by her lifelong friends. It is not the thoughtful, entertaining correspondent so valued by Philip Larkin and so many others. We learn nothing here of what Pym’s faith meant to her. The subject interests Byrne so little that in her madcap way she titles a chapter “In which Miss Pym goes over to Rome,” by which she turns out to mean not that Pym had converted at last, but rather that she had visited Rome the city on a business trip. We learn virtually nothing about her relationship with her sister, although the two lived together most of their lives. Who cooked? How did their finances work? Why did Hilary’s daughter love Aunt Barbara so much? Don’t expect answers from Byrne.

So. When Pym chooses throughout her life to emphasize her unmarried status by calling herself Miss Pym, and spinster, is she being self-deprecating? Simply playful? Is she angry? She was born into the world of the suffragists, and she lived well into the era of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Ms. magazine. Read through a certain lens, one can see Pym’s entire oeuvre as a protest against the limited roles open to women of her class and education. But is that what it is?

Byrne and the Pym Industry

Paula Byrne can write. The evidence can be found in her Afterword, which begins on p. 605 of this book and runs for seven literate pages. The problem here, or one of them, is that for the first 604 pages, she hasn’t bothered. The prose is mostly an unpolished, unedited mess, full of sentences like “She also knows that he is bored of her and she is nothing but a fun diversion.” The punctuation follows no known rules of style. Paragraphs and chapters begin on one topic and veer for no reason to another, as if making logical transitions isn’t really part of the job. There is a great deal of extraneous matter that adds nothing to our understanding of the life, or worse, misrepresents it. And the accounts of the novels themselves, which take up a great deal of the space, read not like thoughtful criticism but like book reports, listing characters and plot, then connecting those to people and events in Pym’s own life, as if that explains everything about how art is created. As with most book reports, if you haven’t read the books in question, these are boring, and if you have, they teach you nothing.

Trust me, I am holding back.

Let’s look at a passage from chapter XV of “Book the Fifth: Miss Pym in Pimlico.” It is titled, “Bill.” It is a page and two-thirds long. The “Bill” in question is a London representative of Twentieth Century Fox. The movie studio briefly had an interest in Pym’s fourth novel, Less Than Angels, and the rep briefly had an interest in Pym. Here is Byrne’s paragraph about Bill:

Pym wrote that it was supposed to have been “an evening of seduction” in Bill’s office over the Rialto cinema. It all went wrong, however, when she needed to use the bathroom and there was a fiasco about the location of the ladies’ room and then, finding it locked, having to fetch the key. Then the key got stuck in the lock. Eventually, they went to a pub to find another ladies’ loo: “there was such a strong element of farce that one couldn’t help laughing.” But clearly Bill was unimpressed, as they appear not to have met again. Nor was the novel optioned by Fox. Nevertheless, inspired by the interest in her work, she pondered on her next novel. She had an opening line, but as yet no plot.

Is it clear to you that Bill (I call him Bill) was unimpressed? It’s not to me. Having read Pym’s own account, I think it’s more likely that Pym thought he was a jerk. But I digress. I would like to know what the last two sentences had to do with Bill or the rest of the paragraph, but never mind, Byrne is on to the next paragraph, which begins: “Pym had been wondering about a theme, writing in her notebook: WHAT IS MY NEXT NOVEL TO BE?” Nota bene “had been.” There’s no indication that Bill’s interest, or Fox’s, had anything to do with it; Pym was always pondering what her next novel was to be. Byrne goes on: “In the pub with Bill O’Hanlon, she had noticed the presence of ‘happy little queer couples.’ She also knew that she wanted to write about the clergy . . .” Since she more or less always wanted to write about the clergy, that’s not so much to do with Bill either. The paragraph and chapter ends with this quote from Pym’s notebooks: “‘It can begin with the shrilling of the telephone in Freddie Hood’s church.’ But what then?”

Got that? The part I left out is about the fact that she had recently heard a telephone ring during a service in St. Mary Aldermary in Watling Street, where a friend of hers was canon. Good to know. What Byrne wants us to understand here is about Byrne, not Pym: that Byrne or her researcher has been through every shred of paper in the Pym archives in the Bodleian Library. Okay, then.

Could you explain, though, why this chapter is entitled “Bill”? Are you glad you know about Bill, who intersected Pym’s life a handful of times, if that, and left no trace when he exited? Are you glad that Byrne dipped backward in the notebooks to include the line about the queers? She didn’t want you to miss that, even though it wasn’t really so much about Bill . . .

I can explain one thing. If you read Barbara’s own account of the toilet business it is in fact quite droll, and it is also clear that it was Bill, not Barbara, who hoped that the evening would be a seduction, and that little as we may like or feel disposed to forgive her for the “happy little queer couples,” she was a person of a particular place and time, as are we all, and this whole account was a private note to self, never meant by her for our eyes, in a notebook in which she kept details to trigger her memory for setting future scenes in her writing.

What is also clear throughout this book, and it is not at all a small problem, is that Byrne has mistaken Barbara Pym’s comedy for her own. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page consists of material taken from Pym’s private writings and paraphrased in ways that are neither reliable nor useful to the reader, let alone an accurate representation of Pym’s voice and experience.

But that, unfortunately, is not all. Let us turn to the issue of the title of the book, and the structure and narrative strategy, if it can be called that. In the Prologue, Byrne writes that Pym’s early diaries are prefaced “The Adventures of Miss Pym, in the manner of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.” I wouldn’t make too much of that; my own early diaries were addressed to Anne Frank and written partly in pig Latin. How about yours? But Byrne goes on, “Miss Pym spent much of her youth falling in love and—surprisingly in the light of her reputation for provinciality—a considerable amount of it on the road. So it is fitting to imagine her life as a picaresque adventure, with a Fieldingesque narrative: ‘In which our heroine . . .’”

But—no. Just, no. It isn’t. This is not the eighteenth century, Pym is the opposite of a picaro, a biography is not a novel, and Ms. Byrne is no Henry Fielding. It is condescending and cute, and often also offensive. Unless I’m wrong—is it charming to title a chapter “Miss Pym the Novelist takes Tea with the Distinguished Author Elizabeth Bowen in the Company of Several Homosexuals”?

The bewildering thing I’m wondering is, what was the pub­lisher thinking? The writing is an undercooked mess, the organization makes no sense, and whatever previously unpublished material Byrne has managed to fling in is likely only to damage and diminish Pym in the eyes of readers who have loved her work. What can possibly have been the idea?

It is possible to find fault with Pym’s craft here and there, but her voice is indelible and gives great and unfailing pleasure to those with a taste for it. The art matters. From the person who can be inferred from the work, and the accounts of those who knew her, we know she was funny, brave, and kind, a friend whose originality and loyalty were treasured. There are many who feel Pym is writing the hymns for those for whom marriage is not a happy ending, for whom settling for an imperfect pairing is not better than a single life, in the face of her culture’s somewhat medieval attitude that a woman who has not been chosen by a man has somehow failed in her earthly purpose. But the picture Byrne paints over and over is of a disappointed and rather pathetic romantic reject, more Barbara Cartland than Henry Fielding, and she has done it in a sloppy and oblivious way, as if she hasn’t seen that there may be another way to read the record.

Are there aspects of Pym’s personality and behavior that could stand some explaining? There are. But for example, Byrne’s choice to repeat an apparently homophobic entry from Pym’s notebook, from the chapter about “Bob,” gives offense not only because it is gratuitous in this context, but because it’s incurious. What did it mean that Pym made that note, when gay men had been so important to her happiness from university onward? Pym was to fall deeply, painfully, in love with a gay man much younger than herself during the harrowing period after the Jonathan Cape rejection. And then, once she had absorbed the pain of his defection, she transformed the experience into her shrewd and moving novel, The Sweet Dove Died, in which a lady of a certain age falls in love with a very beautiful younger man she wants to collect, like an objet d’art. The protagonist Leonora is as different from Pym as a woman of her age and class can be. She doesn’t much like sex or being touched, she dislikes animals, she is vain and cold. Pym takes an experience that embarrassed, confused and hurt her and transforms it into something clarifying and beautifully observed with a completely different meaning from what happened to her. That is interesting.

Larkin called Pym’s novels “plangent,” meaning reverberating and mournful. He also remarks that anger doesn’t come up in her work or even in her notebooks until late in her life, during the period of her professional rejection. From her friend of almost 50 years, Jock Liddell, to her last crush, Pym loved gay men as friends and as objects of romantic fascination, and she filled her novels with characters who also loved gay men. Is it possible that when we see just a flash of something painful in her description of a contented gay couple, that she’s allowing herself to be angry at the men who are not available to her in spite of her love? It’s not my job to know, and maybe not Byrne’s either, but at least Byrne should have had the sympathy and interest to ask the question, instead of simply exposing Pym’s least attractive private moments and moving on, as if she’d done a good day’s work.

The number and enormity of the miscalculations in this book are beyond the scope of this review to describe. If you are interested in the private life of Barbara Pym the person, her own diaries and letters in A Very Private Eye, and/or Hazel Holt’s Life of will get you far closer than Byrne, who simultaneously diminishes Pym as a person and makes insupportable claims for her work (the Austen drumbeat is thunderous) not, one feels, because she believes them, but in order to make a claim of importance for her own book.

If you are interested in Pym the writer, reading in chronological order the mature novels she prepared for press in her lifetime yields great riches. There’s a Penguin Classics edition of Excellent Women with a fine introduction by A. N. Wilson, and the rest are easy to find in reprints and electronic editions. It should be noted, speaking of the Pym Industry, that there are also audio editions. Katherine A. Powers reports in the Washington Post Book World: “Six of [Pym’s] novels are available as audiobooks, with Excellent Women read in the proper spirit of genteel resignation by Jayne Entwistle. . . . [T]he other five novels are narrated by Mary Sarah who pollutes them with a travesty of an English accent in a voice that is whispery, dainty and twee. It’s a rendering so gooey, so out of keeping with Pym’s sensibility, that, as audiobooks, these works are lost.” Shelve them along with The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym in the Do Not Resuscitate section.
[1] Hazel Holt, A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym (New York, 1991), p. 155.

[2] THE ADVENTURES OF MISS BARBARA PYM, by Paula Byrne. William Collins. $34.99.