DECADES before Nora Ephron advised “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” Barbara Pym was putting the maxim into practice. She entitled her early adult diaries “A Record of the Adventures of the celebrated Barbara M. C. Pym during the year 1932 (written by herself)”. Paula Byrne’s biography takes the picaresque side of Pym’s nature as its framework.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is a vivid account of the novelist’s life, reaching back to the upstairs-downstairs affair of her paternal grandparents, and concluding with Pym’s final weeks in 1980, enduring a second bout of cancer.
Having captured the entire Bodleian Pym archive of diaries, letters, notebooks, and manuscripts on her phone, and then studying them in comfort away from the library’s “Artic cold”, Byrne focuses on the formative, and sometimes painful, episodes that shaped Pym’s outlook and fiction. She homes in on a probable date-rape by the novelist’s first Oxford boyfriend, Rupert Gleadow, the account physically excised from Pym’s diary, and entries for many days after reduced to “Can’t remember.”
Pym, as she was known at St Hilda’s College, was born in 1915, in Owestry, Shropshire, to Frederick, a solicitor, and Irena, the daughter of a business family. Barbara and her younger sister, Hilary, were brought up in Morda Lodge, with servants, shopping trips to Liverpool, and holidays in north Wales. After boarding school in Liverpool, Barbara fulfilled Irena’s ambition of attending Oxford.
Pym’s second undergraduate romance with Henry Harvey provides one of the funniest scenes: she lounges around Harvey’s room, in her suspenders, while his flatmate Jock Liddell plays “Holy, holy, holy” on the recorder.
Harvey never gave Pym commitment, but he inspired pompous Archdeacon Hoccleve in Some Tame Gazelle, surrounded by characters based on her, Liddell, and her sister. Liddell went on to become a lifelong friend and literary supporter. They shared a love of Ivy Compton Burnett, and letters in their idol’s dialogue style are a hoot:
“Tell me all,” said Barbara in a harsh hurrying tone. “I can bear it. I hope there is much to tell.”
“It’s known that I like discovering other people’s business,” said Jock. “But there are things that I am not at liberty to divulge. My lips are sealed.”
“Oh”, said Barbara in an eager tone. “You do not mean. . .”
“No, I do not,” said Jock in a firm even tone. “I mean something very different.”
In the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle, written in 1934, but not published until 1950, the autobiographical Belinda Bede reminisces about the lovely times that she had in Germany, and wears a Nazi pin. Byrne devotes a whole section to Pym’s student-union and independent trips to 1930s Germany, and her affair with Friedbert Gluck. But Barbara Pym Society research is inconclusive on whether Gluck was in the SS or the Wehrmacht. Byrne possibly over-eggs the Stollen on Pym’s closeness to the Third Reich.
The war takes Pym to Naples in the WRENS, providing the back story for Rocky Napier, the charming, handsome fictional hero whom several men claimed to be based on them. Excellent Women, in which Rocky first appears, also reflects the hidden, post-war downward social mobility of single women facing narrow work opportunities and discriminatory pay. In her early thirties, Pym’s editorial job at the International African Institute paid £5 per week. “The trouble is I rather lack confidence in myself at the moment and in my ability to earn enough money.”
Contracted at 300 pages, Byrne’s book doubled in the writing, with context on mid-century British culture, and a sensitive handling of the “wilderness years” from 1963 when Cape declined to publish An Unsuitable Attachment.
Byrne is superb on Pym’s mastectomy, and its incorporation into Quartet in Autumn. Also, Pym’s observations on the NHS: “All humanity is in the Out Patients, those whom we as Christians must love.”
Pym’s spiritual life, from her Anglo-Catholic church-crawls to curiosity about neighbours’ churchgoing, tracking them to St Laurence’s, Queens Park, and joining the congregation, are documented, but lack the analysis devoted to other areas. For fullest contemplation of “Rome, Death, and Umbrage”, it is joyously back to the novels.
Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym
Harper Collins £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50