Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Traditional Novels from Pym

Barbara Pym

"She had always been an unashamed reader of novels ..."
— Barbara Pym (Quartet in Autumn)

The British novelist Barbara Pym was born on this day in 1913. Pym's writing career spans the second half of the twentieth century but her early success with a handful of novels in the 1950s was followed by a fifteen-year period during which no one would publish her. Only three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six she was rediscovered and achieved international fame. The loci of the rediscovery was a survey of famous British writers in the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two of the famous writers asked to nominate the most underrated book of the previous seventy-five years picked novels by Pym. Philip Larkin, one of the surveyed writers, put Pym in Jane Austen’s league for her ability to keep her reader “always on the verge of smiling.” Recently Alexander McCall Smith echoed this comparison when he singled out Pym’s Excellent Women as “one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century.” My recent reading of Jane Gardam's Old Filth reminded me of the Pym style which She seems to share at least in part.

Pym's novel Jane and Prudence, first published in 1953, is set in a very British village, a world of jumble sales, charity fetes and tea with the new vicar. Jane, the vicar’s wife, is not quite comfortable with her role, though she tries to be dutiful. She first meets many of the prominent parishioners at the decorating of the church for the Harvest Festival, to which Adrian Driver, the village's very eligible tweed-and-brogues widower, arrives bearing his handsome contribution to the altar display:

“What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”
Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.
“It is magnificent,” said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.
Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.
Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.

Miss Doggett is chief decorator and an elderly spinster; a few chapters on, we find her again trying to sort her men from her marrows: “Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing but had forgotten for the moment what it was.” According to the novelist Jilly Cooper this was her finest work “ full of wit, plotting, characterization and miraculous observation". My favorite of Pym's novels is The Sweet Dove Died, published in 1978, with its fascinating heroine Leonora Eyre. As with all her novels the literary references abound.

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