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Ascent of the ridiculous

by
24 May 2013

Barbara Pym became known as the novelist of High Church Anglicanism, and has, over the years, fallen in and out of favour. In the author's centenary year, Kate Charles charts her ups and downs

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FOR a High Anglican spinster who was born 100 years ago, and who only had eight novels published in her lifetime, Barbara Pym has a diverse cast of literary champions. The novelists P. D. James, Jilly Cooper, A. N. Wilson, Anne Tyler, Alexander McCall Smith, Salley Vickers, and James Runcie all join to sing her praises.

Until just a few years ago, it was difficult to find her novels. Long out of print, they turned up occasionally (and appropriately) in church jumble sales, and charity shops.

Now, however, almost all of them are available in new Virago Modern Classic editions, with colourful retro covers, and even as e-books. Pym, who died of cancer in 1980, aged 66, would have been amazed and delighted by the recent surge of popularity and attention.

Even in her own lifetime, her books were far from universally popular. She went through long periods of disappointment and rejection. Her first novel went the rounds for 15 years before finding a publisher, and, after six well-reviewed novels were published in the 1950s, she was dropped by Jonathan Cape for being out of step with the trendy 1960s.

She continued to write, and to rework her books, but it was not until 1977 that she was rediscovered by the publishing Establishment, and by the reading public. Philip Larkin - a long-time admirer of her work, who corresponded with her over a number of years - and the biographer Lord David Cecil both named her as the most underrated novelist of the 20th century, in a feature in The Times Literary Supplement. Suddenly, her career was rejuvenated.

Publishers clamoured for her unpublished novels, and Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978. Sadly, she did not live long enough to enjoy her new fame, and after the posthumous publication of a few more volumes, her books once more slid into obscurity.

But they were never totally forgotten, even though they were difficult to find. And, in 1994, the Barbara Pym Society was formed, to both promote her work and provide a means for her champions to share their enjoyment of it.


HOW do you capture the charm of a Barbara Pym novel for the uninitiated? A Guardian review of her first book says it best: "Delightfully amusing, but no more to be described than a delicious taste or smell."

Her books are characterised by a focus on the trivial, on mundane details of everyday life, minutely observed. This gives them a particular sense of time and place, and the feeling of a real, self-contained world, in which characters who feature in one novel might pop up again in another, mentioned in passing, or fleetingly glimpsed.

And they are funny, although it is difficult to convey that through quotations. In isolation, lines from her books can seem banal, or, worse yet, silly. But, in context, they are achingly, sometimes screamingly funny.

Crampton Hodnet, published posthumously, can reduce the reader to tears of laughter. Even her most serious books, such as Quartet in Autumn or The Sweet Dove Died, are infused with droll wit, and little Pym moments of hilarious epiphany. Her humour is dry, wry, sly. Situational and character-driven, it is subtle, ironic, and incisive, informed by her perfectly honed sense of the ridiculous.

That said, Pym's books are not for everyone. There are some prominent writers - and critics - who don't "get" her; who believe that her emphasis on the mundane precludes her from consideration as a serious novelist. And she is not to every reader's taste, either.

But her supporters tend to be passionate, even evangelistic, in their advocacy. Apart from appreciative novelists, her admirers can be found among several specific groups.


AMERICANS have always taken Pym more seriously than her own compatriots. For years, her books have been the subject of academic study on the other side of the Atlantic, and the American branch of the Barbara Pym Society is hugely active, and successful. Each spring, its conference at Harvard is a sell-out.

It seems likely that a sort of nostalgic Anglophilia is a large factor in the initial interest of some American readers. Her books are so very English - much in the way that the books of Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse are.

Yet there must now be an element of nostalgia in anyone's enjoyment of Pym, wherever they live. Her world is no longer recognisable to most people, even in this country. In these days of retro fascination with the past, that has a certain appeal.

The Church of England has always been the repository of Pym aficionados, since the C of E has provided the setting for so many of her books, and the source for much of her humour. She was an unashamed High Churchwoman, who relished all the trappings of Anglo-Catholic worship, as well as the pettiness of parish life.

She was steeped in the Church, from her earliest days. She filled her books with clerics, acolytes, crucifers, thuribles, feast days, jumble sales, and umbrage taken over the flower rota.


SHE also understood the most minute subtleties and nuances of churchmanship. She wrote in Excellent Women: "The vestry was a gloomy untidy place, containing two rows of chairs, a grand piano and a cupboard full of discarded copies of Hymns Ancient and Modern - we used the English Hymnal, of course - vases, bowls and brasses in need of cleaning."

Unlike many other writers, she got it right because she lived it herself, and that is one reason why churchpeople take such delight in her books. Admittedly, it was a more innocent time, when her characters' obsession with the celibacy of the (male) clergy - "Perhaps it is more suitable that a High Church clergyman should remain unmarried, that there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator" - did not necessarily have a subtext.

It would be fair to say that, the Church excepted, a committed Pym reader is more likely to be a woman than a man. She wrote to a friend: "Why is it that men find my books so sad? Women don't particularly. Perhaps they (men) have a slight guilt feeling that this is what they do to us, and yet really it isn't as bad as all that."

All of her protagonists are female, and it is the men in their lives who consistently disappoint them. Pym's men tend to be self-absorbed, needy, and helpless - even those who have redeeming qualities, such as intelligence and kindness. The men take themselves seriously, and are unaware of their own ridiculousness. "Men are just children, really, aren't they?" a character in Excellent Women says.

This jaded view of men is not surprising, given Pym's life history. But she was certainly not a man-hater, and did not conform to the stereotype of the uptight, virginal spinster personified in so many of her heroines.


HER life was lived at a high emotional pitch, and that included passionate love affairs, and attachments to men - from Henry Harvey, her callow and caddish love object at Oxford, to the married journalist Gordon Glover during the Second World War, and a young antiques dealer, in later years.

All of them, in their own way, used her, and betrayed her devotion. She never married. Instead, she spent much of her life sharing a home with her sister, Hilary, whose own wartime marriage was short-lived.

In 1978, the BBC broadcast a radio talk by Barbara Pym, Finding a Voice. In this, she looked back on her career, reflecting on its highs and lows, her inspirations and her methodology. She concluded with the observation that the thing most writers longed for was a distinctive voice: "I think that's the kind of immortality most authors would want - to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them, and by nobody else. But, of course, it's a lot to ask for."

Devoted readers around the world would agree that - although she had relatively few years to do so - she certainly achieved a distinctive voice. "Pymmish" is an adjective that needs no explanation for anyone who has ever read one of her novels. That is a legacy which many other writers would envy, and which she richly deserves.

Kate Charles, the author of a number of crime novels set against the background of the Church of England, is a founder member of the Barbara Pym Society, and a former chairman. For more information on the Barbara Pym Society visit, www.barbara-pym.org.

 

The paper figured in both Barbara Pym's life and her writing. Here are some of her references:

"You might advertise in the Church Times." At this idea a crowd of suitable applicants seemed to rise up before me - canons' widows, clergymen's sons, Anglo-Catholic gentlewomen (non-smokers), church people (regular communicants) . . . all so worthy that they sounded almost unpleasant." Excellent Women

"I suddenly remembered some of the 'Answers to Correspondents' in the Church Times, which were so obscure that they might very well have dealt with a problem like this. 'I saw our vicar holding the hand of a widow in the park - what should I do?' The question sounded almost frivolous put like that; what kind of an answer could I expect? 'Consult your Bishop immediately'? Or, 'We feel this is none of your business'?" Excellent Women

"There was a vase of lilac on the table, and a copy of the Church Times which I began to read, turning first to the advertisements. I was just pondering over an offer of hospitality from an elderly widow to a curate ('must be of gentle birth and education') and wondering how many would dare to measure themselves up to that standard." A Glass of Blessings

"'A most extraordinary thing happened. I was glancing through the personal column of the Church Times when I saw an advertisement for "a curate in poor health" - those were the very words - to accompany two elderly ladies on and Italian tour, all expenses paid.' He smiled. 'So naturally I applied.'" An Unsuitable Attachment

"A competent agnostic with some knowledge of horticulture - was that all that was needed? Believer not objected to? Like a Church Times advertisement of the old days?" A Few Green Leaves

"'I always think the loneliness of men is so sad,' said Catherine. 'Those advertisements you sometimes see from a man wanting a companion to go on holiday, in such respectable papers too, like the Church Times. I can't really bear them.'" Less Than Angels

"Belinda took up the Church Times and began glancing idly through the advertisements. A priest's cloak for sale, 44-inch chest - clerical evening dress, tall, slim build, never worn - she paused, wondering what story, sad or dramatic, lay behind those words. She had just turned to the back pages, and was wondering whether Harriet would care to spend part of their summer holiday at a Bright Christian Guest House at Bognor, when the door opened and the Archdeacon came in." Some Tame Gazelle

"'Oh, dear,' sighed Belinda. 'I meant to get some more toilet rolls yesterday.'
'I just gave her an old Church Times,' said Harriet airily.
'Oh, Harriet, I wish you hadn't done that. I feel Miss Prior is the kind of person who wouldn't like to use the Church Times.'" Some Tame Gazelle

 

Try this first
Excellent Women (Virago Modern Classics (VMC), 1952)

Mildred Lathbury is perhaps the quintessential Pym heroine: a self-described "mousy" spinster in her early 30s, the daughter of a vicar, who knows herself "capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoiled by bad weather."

The book is set in post-war London, when the newly demobbed and glamorous naval officer Rocky Napier disrupts Mildred's church-centric life; and a predatory clergy widow sets her cap at the vicar of the parish. This is probably the best place to begin if you are new to Pym's work.


The village novels
Some Tame Gazelle (VMC, 1950); A Few Green Leaves (Bello, 1980)
Pym's writing career was bookended by two village novels. Some Tame Gazelle was written years before its publication, when Pym was only 22; in it, she projects herself, her sister, and her university friends into a middle-aged future.

Frequently hilarious, A Few Green Leaves is her last novel, completed shortly before her death. This is altogether more reflective and elegiac in character, and yet ends on a note of hopeful optimism.


The churchiest

A Glass of Blessings (VMC, 1958)
This novel follows the church year, beginning and ending on St Luke's Day. Full of memorable characters such as the kleptomaniac clergy housekeeper Wilf Bason, and the cultured but helpless Fr Thames, it is also notable for its matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal.

 
The least churchy
Less Than Angels (VMC, 1955); The Sweet Dove Died (Bello, 1978)
Less Than Angels is set in the world of Pym's day-job, peopled with eccentric anthropologists rather than quirky clergy (she worked at the International African Institute in London for 17 years, from 1946).
The Sweet Dove Died, one of the mature works of her unpublished period, is ultimately a tragic - and autobiographical - story of the love of an ageing woman for a younger man.


The one that changed everything
Quartet in Autumn (VMC, 1977)
This novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, restarted Pym's career as a published writer. Reflecting her own experiences of ill health and retirement, it is a poignant, humane look at the life of four office-workers on the brink of retirement.

 
The funniest
Crampton Hodnet (VMC, 1985)
Pym wrote Crampton Hodnet in the 1930s, but it was not published until after her death. Set in rarefied North Oxford, it provides more than its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments, featuring the self-centred Miss Doggett, and her downtrodden companion Miss Morrow.


The rest. . .
Jane and Prudence (VMC, 1953) explores the lives of a scatty vicar's wife Jane, and her university friend Prudence, a glamorous career woman. Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow are recycled in this book, providing much of its humour.

No Fond Return of Love (VMC, 1961) improbably brings together the worlds of indexing and High Church through two brothers - one an academic, and the other a priest. The heroine, Dulcie, is one of Pym's most appealing women.

An Unsuitable Attachment (Bello, 1982) was rejected by 21 publishers, and was reworked several times before its eventual (posthumous) publication. Its centrepiece is a parish pilgrimage to Italy.

An Academic Question, 1986, VMC, is a book that Pym worked half-heartedly on, trying to turn herself into Margaret Drabble. She could not. It was published posthumously.

Civil to Strangers (VMC, 1987) is a posthumously published collection of early works, unpublished stories, and short works of fiction.

 
Books about Pym
A Very Private Eye (Dutton, 1984)
An illuminating collection of diaries and letters, edited by her sister, Hilary Pym, and her literary executor, Hazel Holt.
Lot to Ask: A life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt (Macmillan, 1990)
The "official" biography.

No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church (Barbara Pym Society/HKB Press, 2004) Papers on a theme, delivered at various conferences of the Barbara Pym Society, edited by Hazel K. Bell.

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