Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Have You Met Miss Pym?

In Britain's dim, gray times after the War, when it seemed like rationing would never end and Empire was slipping inexorably away, a sharp-eyed young writer looked around at all that was cosy and middle-class and obliviously headed for, well, oblivion, and carefully dissected it: vicars and their long suffering wives, suburban church festivals, muddled anthropologists, and, especially, well-raised single ladies who were slowly realizing that, if they weren't careful, they would end up beneficiaries of the very charities for which they were now volunteering.

Barbara Pym was, in many ways, very like some of her characters: a tall, slightly gawky, thoughtful woman with an interest in food and what the neighbors (neighbours?) were up to. Knowing that she had her own blighted romances, earned an exiguous income editing a learned journal, and lived in a quiet district with her sister and the inevitable cats, one runs the risk of mistaking her for one of them: the somewhat neurasthenic Ianthe Broome of An Unsuitable Attachment, perhaps, or Excellent Women's lightly acerbic Mildred Lathbury (no fear, tho', of confusing her with the vile Allegra Gray!). This gives an unnerving effect to reading her published diaries - as if they were, somehow, an extension of the canon of her novels.

She had a mild vogue in the 1950s; then, a rejection letter from a publisher, and almost 15 years of silence. A brief renaissance after a mid-70s rediscovery was cut short by her death, but we are left with the books - simultaneously vivid and infinitely occupied with the minutiae of life, wry, funny, and often, especially at second reading, terribly sad - or, rather, melancholy.

They make, as another summer fades, lovely reading in autumn, I must say. And now I must run - Lady Finstock will be ringing in later this morning for tea and to pick up my last season's things for the Harvest Festival jumble sale...


  1. Darling. Excellent Women never strays far from the top of my list of favorite books (the vile Allegra, indeed.)

    When I'm trapped in committee meetings at work and need to deal with idiots making my life needlessly complicated, I draw on my Inner Mildred to remain calm and not start laying about me with flat handed slaps. I ask myself, "What Would Barbara Do?"

  2. Barbara Pym's books are so sublime they occasionally make me squeal with delight as I read them, even though they're so sedate in tone. I love the way she builds up personalities from so much minutiae.

  3. Don't neglect "Quartet in Autumn" — a spry warning to all young people who think that life can be counted on to arrange things interestingly.