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
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Publishers clamoured for her unpublished novels, and Quartet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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
"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
"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
"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
'I just gave her an old Church Times,' said Harriet
'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),
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
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
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.
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
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
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.