Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Barbara Pym

The British novelist Barbara Pym was born on this day in 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire. She was privately educated at Huyton College, near Liverpool. After studying English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II.
Her literary career is noteworthy because of the long hiatus between 1963 and 1977, when, despite early success and continuing popularity, she was unable to find a publisher for her richly comic novels; then, just three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six, sudden rediscovery and international fame for being "a twentieth-century Jane Austen." The turning point for Pym came with an influential article in the Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, nominated her as the most underrated writer of the century. Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence over a period of many years. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another novel, The Sweet Dove Died, previously rejected by many publishers, was subsequently published to critical acclaim, and several of her previously unpublished novels were published after her death. Barbara Pym died of breast cancer, aged 66. Following her death, her sister Hilary continued to champion her work, and the Barbara Pym Society was set up in 1993. The sisters are both buried in Finstock churchyard.

Several strong themes link the works in the Pym "canon", which are more notable for their style and characterization than for their plots. She is part of a tradition that may be traced back to Jane Austen or, more recently, Elizabeth Bowen among others. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, and comedies of manners, with excessive significance being attached to social activities connected with the Anglican church (in particular its Anglo-Catholic incarnation). However, the dialogue is often deeply ironic, and a tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.

The latter is my personal favorite with its rich characters including Leonora Eyre, an attractive and elegant, but essentially selfish, middle-aged woman. She becomes friendly with antique dealer Humphrey Boyce and his nephew James. Both men are attracted to Leonora, but Leonora prefers the young, good-looking James to the more "suitable" Humphrey. While James is away on a buying trip, Leonora discovers to her annoyance that he has been seeing Phoebe, a girl of his own age. Leonora makes use of Humphrey to humiliate Phoebe, and turns out a sitting tenant in order that James can take up a flat in her own house. She does this in an apparent attempt to control his life. While abroad, the bisexual James has begun a relationship with an American, the amoral Ned, who later follows him to London. Ned pries James out of Leonora's grasp, only to reject him for another lover. James attempts a reconciliation with Leonora, but she refuses to give him a second opportunity to hurt her, and settles for the admiration of the less attractive Humphrey. As with all Pym's fiction, the novel contains many literary references, notably to works by Keats, John Milton and Henry James. Another favorite of mine, and much more in the comic vein, is the delightful Crampton Hodnet which has Oxford as its setting, a plus.

All of Pym's oeuvre is consistently readable and I would recommend her novels to all.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym. Moyer Bell. 2003 (1978).
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym. Moyer Bell. 2000 (1985).


Levi Stahl said...

Happy birthday to Miss Pym, a longtime favorite! I second your recommendation--it's been a real joy to see Moyer Bell return her to print!

James said...

Thanks for your second. Miss Pym rewards reading and rereading.