The Novels of Barbara Pym
2013 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite British authors Barbara Pym. So by way of celebration, I reread a handful of her charming novels.
Pym was a modestly successful author of six novels when in 1963 her longtime publisher rejected her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. Twenty more publishers agreed with his decision. Suddenly Pym’s “excellent” women –stalwart volunteers at the church jumble sale, purveyors of endless cups of tea, and shrewd observers of village life were unfashionable literary heroines. From 1963 to 1977 Pym published nothing, although she continued to write.
Her reputation was resurrected when The Times Literary Supplement asked a number of literary types to list the most overrated and underrated authors of the last seventy-five years. Two prominent literary figures placed Pym in their underrated list. Her publisher reissued her previous novels, and Pym wrote three more novels to great acclaim before her death in 1980.
Pym has been called the 20th C Jane Austen. Parish life and its rituals, the romantic entanglements, and the sly humor are linchpins of both women’s novels.
But in an Austen novel, wrangling the hero to a marriage proposal is the entire point of the heroine’s existence. Pym’s women, usually university graduates (like the author) toiling at obscure academic publications (like the author) find that men are only occasionally worth the trouble. The frail creatures take up space, but it is the women who fully inhabit Pym’s novels.
All of Barbara Pym’s novels are wonderful, but the three that I read recently are
Excellent Women c.1952
Jane and Prudence c. 1953
No Fond Return of Love c. 1961