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Literary review: Miss Pym disposes

by
30 July 2021

Barbara Pym’s own experiences, friendships, and relationships shaped her fiction, writes Paula Byrne

The Barbara Pym Society

BARBARA PYM’s funeral was well attended. It took place in the Finstock parish church, where T. S. Eliot had been baptised in 1927. One of those who attended was Philip Larkin. He noted that there were family, friends, and a representative of Macmillan, her publisher.

Larkin sat in a pew directly underneath the plaque commemorating Eliot’s baptism. He told Anthony Thwaite (his poet friend, and later the editor of his letters) that he regretted Pym’s death very much: “Even at her funeral I found myself looking forward to getting a letter from her describing it all.”

Prudence Glover, who had seen much of Barbara during the years in Pimlico and Barnes, and who had once lived with the sisters when she went to college in London, was devastated by the loss: “Although I was married with children by then, I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe she was old enough to die. I remember her with deep affection and know she always loved me.”

In a talk describing her life as a writer, Pym once said that “the greatest source of material for character drawing is probably the author’s own self. Even when a novel isn’t obviously autobiographical one can learn a great deal about a novelist from his works, for he can hardly avoid putting something of himself into his creations.”

She was the most autobiographical of writers, and, although she never married or had her own children, she knew love, and she wrote about it, in all its manifestations.

 

PERSUASION was Pym’s favourite Jane Austen novel, and she could not bring herself to believe that the author of such a beautiful and satisfying depiction of love could not have experienced it herself: “I don’t suppose anybody nowadays would be likely to think of Jane Austen as a quiet spinster who had never known love but only imagined it.”

In a memorandum written after her death, Jock Liddell wrote movingly about his relationship with Pym. He described himself as greatly fortunate that the young Pym found herself sitting in the Bodleian Library opposite Henry Harvey.

Because of that moment, Pym and Liddell would become the greatest of friends. Liddell recalled that Barbara was the first to write to him after the death of his beloved brother; also that, in 1945, when he left Oxford for good, it was she who helped him to disband his flat.

In 1976, she visited Jock in Greece for the last time. He remembered her as entirely carefree. Liddell admired Pym’s courage for continuing to write after the rejection from Cape. She was a “good, brave, religious woman . . . with equal courage she fought cancer when it came. . .

“Her work was particularly satisfying to her emotionally; one felt she had no other needs. And she had the very great good fortune of having a devoted sister with whom to share her life, and to be her first and best reading public. She realised all the more what it had been to me to lose mine.”

The sibling relationship, so important to Jock and Donald Liddell (and to his literary heroine Jane Austen, and her sister Cassandra), was, as Jock knew, sacred and profound. Hilary’s loss was great (she would live for another 25 years). The life that Pym had envisaged for herself and her sister at the age of 21, living in a country cottage in perfect amity, with jokes and laughter and companionship, had come true.

Only Jock could fully feel the depth of Hilary’s pain on losing such a sister. Never one to cast praise carelessly or to exaggerate the beneficence of human nature, which he often found wanting, Liddell wrote of his lifelong friend: “I think I have never known anyone else who was so good all through.”

The Larkin poem that Pym loved best was not typical of his usual bleakness and dry wit. It is not about bedsits or “the toad work” or ambulances or old people in nursing homes. It is a love poem, uplifting and sonorous, about time and timelessness, fidelity and truth.

This was the one that Pym chose for Desert Island Discs: her friend the author himself reading “An Arundel Tomb”. The poem tells of a stone effigy of an earl and his countess, lying together in their tomb, their hands clasped together, “faithfulness in effigy”.

It ends with a simple and beautiful sentiment: “What will survive of us is Love.” Barbara Pym was a passionate, deeply loving woman, who loved and was loved. And what survives of her is her readers’ love of her novels.

 

THE humour in her novels is sometimes redolent of British seaside postcard comedy: an overweight spinster suddenly appears in her Celanese vest and knickers whilst the curate is on his way to supper, his own “woollen combinations” showing through his cassock.

That same spinster leaves out old copies of the Church Times to use as toilet paper for the dressmaker Miss Prior.

English gentlewomen abroad are at risk from Italians with “wandering hands”: “Pinch your bottom they would before you could say knife.” “Men only want one thing,” Miss Doggett says, but she has forgotten what it is.

Pym’s typical subjects are decayed gentlewomen who wear “good tweeds”, always have their knitting needles to hand, and insist on the ceremonial aspects of afternoon tea.

Then there are the lazy clergymen who rely on the splendid women of their parish to do their laundry and invite them to supper. Vicarage gardens are transformed into fairgrounds with coconut shies, bran tubs, jumble sales, and vegetable competitions. Excellent women are the kind who hang their dish cloths on a nail by the side of the cooker.

The men wear bowler hats and carry briefcases. Soggy afternoons in north Oxford are rendered bearable by undergraduate tea parties, presided over by dowagers.

Somewhere in an inner-city office, a secretary is bursting into tears after being scolded by her boss for a typing error. An errant caterpillar appears unwanted in a badly washed salad. A curate is nipping into the Crownwheel and Pinion for a sneaky morning drink.

Pym was a lover of small things, and her world abounds with them: paper spills in a fancy case, an embroidered Radio Times cover, a beaded milk-jug cover, an antique box, small soap animals. “Unimportant trifles.” But they bring “unexpected moments of joy”. Bunches of mimosa in a wheelbarrow, English pears, chrysanthemums, and Michaelmas daisies; daffodil buds that look like hard-boiled eggs.

Mrs Cleveland, of Crampton Hodnet, misses her estranged husband; when she remembers him coming into the house with a bowl of gooseberries, his affair with a student is temporarily forgotten.

In all this, Pym’s world is the epitome of George Orwell’s England of “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning”.

 

IT IS an England that, in many respects, does not exist any more; perhaps it never did, except in literature and the realm of the imagination. The “small unpleasantnesses” that make life unhappy do seem to belong to a more gentle age. For this reason, Pym’s literary reputation has suffered: it is generally assumed that her novels are entirely whimsical, nostalgic, “safe”.

Yet she always avoided the dangers of flippancy and whimsy. And many aspects of her characters’ lives remain all too familiar: it is still the case that the burden of housework falls predominantly on women, and that marriage for women too often begins in romance and ends at the kitchen sink. For many reasons, one senses that she would have understood the #MeToo movement.

Unlike the world of P. G. Wodehouse, Pym’s is not a static society. Her themes of loneliness, secret lives, and unrequited love are evergreen, but the world of her novels changes perceptibly through the decades of her writing life.

The fabric of her society is delicately knitted together, and the slightest ruction has consequences. But there are darker undertones, too, and they must be confronted in order to do full justice to her life and work.

 

These are edited extracts from The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne, published by Harper Collins at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-0-00-832220-5.

Read a review of the book here

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