In the summer of 1934, after finishing her English degree at Oxford, Barbara Pym drafted a comic novel. Sending up her closest friends, she cast the arrogant fellow graduate she was in love with as a self-centred cleric, Archdeacon Hoccleve, given to complaining loudly about his wife and numbing his congregation with abstruse sermons. Pym and her sister, Hilary, became Belinda and Harriet Bede, ‘spinsters of fiftyish’, living together in a cottage. While there are plenty of 21-year-olds who write novels, far fewer imagine themselves as middle-aged.
In Britain between the wars a respectable young lady, dependent on her father for an allowance, had limited options. She expected and was expected to marry. A graduate might find professional employment, but the marriage bar stymied careers in many areas, including teaching and the civil service. Marriage usually meant children and domestic duties. Pym settled back into her parents’ home in Oswestry, the country town in Shropshire where her father was a solicitor and her mother an assistant church organist. She bought a typewriter and started another high-spirited comedy, Crampton Hodnet, set among scholars, spinsters and clergy. The agent who read it thought the story and its characters tame. ‘Can you imagine an old spinster,’ Pym wrote to friends, ‘frowning anxiously over her MS, trying to be more wicked?’
Pym was 37 and still single when a much-revised version of her roman-à-clef was finally published in 1950 as Some Tame Gazelle (its earlier title, ‘Some Sad Turtle’, was too redolent of soup, Pym decided). It ends with both Belinda and Harriet turning down offers of marriage. Spinsters abound in the novels that followed. Elderly gentlewomen rehearse the privileges of working for superior families before 1914; ‘surplus’ women with war experience live together in practical and possibly more intimate arrangements; middle-aged village stalwarts organise bring-and-buy sales and fundraisers for the Conservatives, haggle over the flower-arranging in church and fuss over the curates.
Not all are living off their dwindling savings. No Fond Return of Love opens with a congregation (what would be the collective noun?) of spinsters at a conference for librarians, editorial assistants, indexers and freelance researchers ‘on the dustier fringes of the academic world’. Not everyone is dowdy or lonely. Viola Dace paints her lips scarlet, appalled to think she might end up like Dulcie Mainwaring in her tweed suit and brogues ‘too heavy for her thin legs’, already ‘halfway to being a dim English spinster’. Soignée Prudence Bates in Jane and Prudence shudders at the messiness of her friend Jane’s family life, returning with relief to her independent life and her smart London flat, though its uncomfortable Regency furniture puts off a potential lover. ‘A woman might have worse things to look forward to,’ Pym writes in An Unsuitable Attachment, than the prospect ‘of a quiet drink in one’s own room at the end of a hard day’.
Pym’s comedies are disenchanted romances. Her spinsters often marry but do so with their eyes open. Men, they realise, are best treated as children – helpless and often peevish. Eligible bachelors and widowers with Victorian names – Aylwin, Everard, Marius – are blithe egotists: Fabian Driver in Jane and Prudence leaves his own picture on his wife’s grave and gives the same volume of poetry to his new fiancée as he did to his first. Passion dwindles in the happiest of marriages to ‘mild, kindly looks and spectacles’; wives ‘manage’ their husbands. Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women accepts that she will become her husband’s amanuensis, the wife thanked but unnamed in numerous scholarly publications. Infidelity is frequent (‘men,’ the overbearing Miss Doggett reminds her faded female companion, ‘only want one thing,’ though she can’t quite remember what it is). Dulcie asks Viola about her lover: ‘Is he married?’ ‘Oh, of course,’ she replies, ‘in a sense.’ Marriage, Dulcie thinks, is still preferable to liaisons and affairs, which ‘get to be rather dreary for ordinary people approaching middle age’.
Spinsters – and clerics. Like other English novelists, Pym finds churchmen funny, a dog-collar instantly conferring a sense of the incongruous: curates drag on cigarettes, Father Thames fondles his Fabergé eggs in the clergy house, Father Anstruther arrives at his former parish with the hearty greeting, ‘you see before you the dog returning to his vomit’ (Pym fans have their favourite one-liners). But scrutinising clerical foibles and affectation is part of a deeper religious sensibility in her fiction. Forbearance, gratitude, humility and an obligation towards others – Christian virtues – are meant to compensate for our shortcomings. Even the restless, selfish Wilmet, eventually recognises that life is ‘a glass of blessings’ – the title of the novel she appears in. (The quotation is borrowed from George Herbert, one of Pym’s favourite poets.) Gently mocking self-love, Pym’s novels find redemption in commonplace pleasures – though without sanctimony. ‘The trivial round, the common task,’ Belinda repeats from Keble’s hymn ‘New Every Morning Is the Love’, ‘did it furnish quite all we needed to ask?’
Pym’s fiction is decidedly parochial. The Anglican parish is usually the social setting, though trips to Mowbray’s bookshop for confirmation presents or Christmas cards might justify a midweek jaunt up to ‘town’. Churchiness is taken for granted, but the borders of Anglicanism are far from settled. Characters go on ‘church-crawls’ in search of the right kind of liturgy, consult Crockford’s Clerical Directory for the lowdown on priests, and take umbrage if the service is too ‘High’ or too ‘Low’. The more secularly minded puzzle over the lingo of the church year, calculating Septuagesima, for instance (the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday); ecclesiological differences are teased out. Pym leans towards Anglo-Catholicism, the most conservative and ritualistic form of Anglicanism, and her congregations frequently enjoy ‘full Catholic privileges’, going to confession and attending mass without paying obeisance to the pope. Anglo-Catholic priests in her novels are peculiarly attractive to their female parishioners, if only because their celibacy is optional (though ‘there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator,’ one character says, perhaps loath to encourage interfering clergy wives).
On the fringe of the fiction and outside the social pale are the nonconformists and evangelicals with their egalitarianism and tin-roofed chapels. Roman Catholics or ‘Romans’, on the other hand, are a source of fascination. Handsome, easy-going Irish priests flit through Pym’s pages, glimpsed nipping into the pub or stocking up on miniature bottles of whiskey at the airport; ‘going over to Rome’ tempts more than one of them. The English Protestant distrust of the papist lurks below the surface. Sinister nuns with steel-rimmed glasses create unease. On a visit to an abbey in Excellent Women, Mildred notes ‘a crowd of little black priests’ from a nearby Roman-Catholic seminary. ‘Like a lot of beetles’, her friend Dora whispers.
Spinsters, clerics – and gay men, a rarity in mainstream English fiction of the 1950s. In Pym’s most Anglo-Catholic novel, A Glass of Blessings, Wilmet falls in love with Piers, who lives with Keith, a knitwear model with a ‘common’ voice; the highly camp housekeeper, Wilf Bason, cooks gourmet meals for the clergy house before leaving to run an ‘antique teashop’: ‘They tell me that Queen Mary often used to pop in.’ The stereotypes can be snobbish and catty but Pym startled and delighted critics with these ‘queer goings-on’ (a chapter from A Glass of Blessings was included in the Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories). Her gay men ironise femininity, break the rules of decorum and make light of deep feeling. Mervyn Cantrell, the caustic and gossipy librarian who lives at home with his mother, shamelessly lusts after Ianthe Broome’s Pembroke table in An Unsuitable Attachment; Ned, an American whose voice whines like a gnat, manipulates the stupid but beautiful bisexual James in The Sweet Dove Died. Inviting his rival, the fastidious Leonora, to view the ‘exceptionally wide double bed covered in mauve velvet’ in his flat, he enjoys telling her that ‘comfort isn’t all I go for.’
Spinsters, clerics, homosexuals – and anthropologists, professional outsiders who make up the majority of the scholars in her fiction. In Less than Angels, anthropology, ‘the study of man embracing woman’, has moved with the times. Once a largely amateur colonial and missionary endeavour, the new breed of professional academics squabble and take umbrage, competing for grants from research centres and libraries like that presided over by the formidable Miss Clovis with her doglike hair. Anthropologists, often foreigners, stand in for the novelist making notes on her tribes. About to attend his first Anglican service, Jean-Pierre Rossignol expects to eat a Sunday lunch ‘with joint’. ‘And after, the sleeping? That is a custom too, I think.’
Like other humourists, Pym is not experimental: a first-person narrator rather than a third; a more subtle handling of different points of view, but nothing showy or distracting. The protagonists are almost interchangeable, reappearing in walk-on parts in the later novels. Reliable comedy, a wit which is shrewd but not too scathing, Pym’s fiction is comforting but never cloying. What might be traumatic in everyday life is gradually transmuted into ‘unpleasantness’; romance, and its wild excesses, are ultimately domesticated by English pragmatism; individual dilemmas or choices subordinated to the greater good. Life, which so often feels like a tiresome elderly relative, ‘pushing, knocking, clinging’, is made bearable by small epiphanies of pleasure. Change becomes nothing to fear. Pym’s is an art of emotional conservatism.
Her novels found a solid phalanx of admirers throughout the 1950s, especially among the borrowers from the subscription or public libraries who made up a large tranche of the novel-reading public. When the literary market shifted in the early 1960s towards young people, and the circulating libraries – Boots and Smith’s – disappeared, her English spinsters and clerics were deemed unlikely to sell. Jonathan Cape, Pym’s long-term publisher, summarily rejected Pym’s seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, and she began fourteen long years in literary limbo. Her rediscovery came in 1977. Two influential fans, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, named her as their ‘most underrated author’ in the TLS and she was taken up in a flurry of publicity, interviewed on radio and TV. Quartet in Autumn, the novel she had on the stocks, was subsequently shortlisted for the Booker prize and new editions of all her books soon followed.
After Pym died in 1980, her sister, Hilary, and Pym’s close friend and colleague Hazel Holt, put together an ‘autobiography’ from her letters and diaries: A Very Private Eye (1984). Holt’s biography proper was published in 1990. She was lavish with quotation, relying on Pym’s endlessly entertaining voice to make up for what seemed like a life short on wickedness. After Oxford, Pym worked steadily at her fiction but grew weary of Oswestry, with its bridge parties and occasional dances. She received a proposal from the brother of an Oxford friend but didn’t want ‘just to be married’. During the war she joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (if only because the uniform was the most ‘becoming’) and was posted to Naples. In the company of dashing naval officers she toured Italian hilltop towns and dined under the stars. After the war she moved to London and in 1946 took a job at the International African Institute, editing Africa, an anthropological journal, and worked there until she retired, writing her fiction in her spare time. A busy London life included regular churchgoing. Readers could now make the obvious connections with the fiction.
Holt emphasised Pym’s literary ambition and her sheer love of making things up; a keen diarist, early on she fashioned a literary persona for herself. Her first full-length novel, written when she was sixteen, adopted an ironic style, echoing Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, whose satirical nihilism was all the rage. Pym and Robert Liddell, a close friend from Oxford, wrote reams to each other in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s brittle manner, relishing her exposure of the tyranny of family relations; she had a Stevie Smith phase too, mimicking the bubbling prose of Novel on Yellow Paper. Holt mined the working notebooks Pym kept for more than thirty years. Alongside personal responses and self-analysis, she salted away ideas for novels, recorded overheard phrases, details of food, furniture, ‘beauty aids’, fashion and brief encounters: ‘The electricity man comes – he has to duck among the swinging wet stockings and knickers, but the expression of his serious rather worried blue eyes does not change.’ She liked to elaborate real-life fantasies, ‘sagas’ about total strangers, which sometimes involved trailing them, or taking long trips with her sister to see where they lived. Her quarry might then become a character in a novel.
Holt was reticent but not coy about Pym’s private life: an affair with a married man who dumped her; a fling with a paymaster in the navy who was too lower class for a serious commitment (‘he has awful manners’); other passing fancies. Gay friends were the longest lasting male connections, though the most important person in Pym’s life was her sister. They lived together for nearly thirty-five years. After Hilary’s marriage collapsed in 1946, the sisters rented flats and then a house in London. Once Pym retired from the institute they shared a cottage in Finstock, the Oxfordshire village in whose church T.S. Eliot, another Anglo-Catholic, was baptised. Pym’s early vision of their lives appeared to have come true.
Paula Byrne’s sprightly new biography largely follows Holt but does its best to ginger things up. Most of the pages are devoted to Pym’s youth and to fleshing out her love life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is told in short breezy chapters with Fieldingesque titles – ‘In Which Miss Pym returns to Oxford’, ‘Miss Pym tours Germany’ and so on, featuring Pym as the heroine of her own life. The cover photograph sets the tone. Rather than the shy spinster, awkward in company, it shows a very young woman suspended in vacancy (the rock she is sitting on has been photoshopped out). Hatless, gloveless and laughing with her lopsided toothy smile, her cotton frock blows open to reveal her thighs. No matter that Pym hated being photographed, especially with what she called ‘that slightly mad jolly fun face’: ‘I would really like to achieve a dark brooding expression but don’t think I ever could.’
Byrne evokes the seductive glamour of Oxford for a sheltered young woman whose knowledge of men was limited to a crush on the curate at her boarding school. Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’; she was ‘quite goofy with excitement’, falling in love on sight with any attractive man (male undergraduates outnumbered the young women ten to one). The flicks fed her dreams of love and romance: she went twice a week and even on Christmas Day. She decided to call herself Sandra, short for the more dramatic, vaguely Eastern European Alexandra. Sandra attached herself to entitled, callow young men, following them around and keeping a record of her ‘sightings’; she took to wearing red satin blouses and close-fitting skirts, and pretended to be worldly, drinking cocktails and staying out late. Half play-acting, half serious about her objects of affection, she hung around their rooms, got tight and found herself mauled by them. She soon gained a reputation for being ‘fast’: ‘Oh you are common property,’ one of her boyfriends told her.
Byrne is frank about Pym’s falling in love with Friedbert Glück, a young Nazi. They met on her first trip to Germany in 1934, organised by the National Union of Students in aid of international fellowship. Pym was charmed by Glück’s continental polish, and the way he said her name thrilled her. They took boats up the Rhine and drank Manhattans at the Excelsior in Berlin; he looked a ‘marvellous unapproachable Nazi’ in the black uniform of the SS. Pym’s romance with Germany was partly inspired by the popular music she heard on the wireless, staples of the Palm Court orchestras like ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ and ‘Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume’. She took German classes and assiduously watched German films (though she found Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel ‘revolting’). She visited Germany five times between 1934 and 1938 and appears singularly obstinate in her naivety, though there were many other short-sighted British tourists in Germany. Seeing Hitler in Hamburg, she thought him ‘smooth and clean’ and was ‘very impressed’. But her sister was shocked, and an old flame admonished her, ‘please don’t admire those filthy Nazis.’ Pym wasn’t Unity Mitford, but she did cherish a swastika pin from her Schwärmerei and included sentimental references to Nazi Germany in a draft of Some Tame Gazelle. ‘One feels one ought to be ashamed of ever having been fond of a German,’ she wrote ruefully in 1941.
As Byrne notes, Pym’s penchant for unavailable or unsuitable men – married, the wrong class, or homosexual – left her free to write, to indulge and fictionalise her romantic fantasies, and to avoid a conventional fate. Gay men provided much of the frivolity in her life. Liddell, whose novels she admired, introduced her to Bob Smith, an Africanist, ‘very sweet and cosy’, who went church-crawling with her (she often carried a biography of Cardinal Newman in her string bag). It proved to be rather less fun in her fifties to be smitten with Skipper, a gay man eighteen years her junior. A good-looking, rich white Bahamian, Richard Roberts strung her along, joining in her flirtatious games, then swiftly offloaded her. Her sister Hilary told her to ‘grow up’, in other words, to give up.
Byrne convinced me that Pym loved and suffered. ‘Pouring out her heart’ in her novels may have been cathartic for her, even therapeutic. But writing was also a discipline where she put herself at arm’s length. As Byrne points out, she preserved her diaries with one eye on publication and knew when she was self-dramatising. Byrne calls her ‘sexually liberated’, but her quietism is hard to tally with feminism. Her fictional women compete for male attention; they type men’s theses and cook their dinners. There is no challenge to male power in the novels (and indeed why should there be?).
In ‘the brutal 1960s’, as Bob Smith called them, Pym’s letters slide towards predictable Tory attitudes – disparagement of the welfare state, of long-haired young men: ‘John Lennon so repellent-looking now’ – taking swipes at student politics and much else. Larkin became a regular correspondent and an ally, though her views were never as rancorous as his. Her lacklustre campus novel, An Academic Question, with its depressed heroine bemoaning ‘the tide of mediocrity’ overwhelming society, was left unfinished (unfortunately it was published posthumously). Usually, though, Pym reworked her reactions in her fiction and was more charitable: Rupert Stonebird in An Unsuitable Attachment finds Penny with her beehive hairdo, duffle coat, black stockings and high heels touchingly comic. Pym valiantly kept up with new writers: Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs. A James Baldwin novel, she wrote to Larkin, quoting the publishers’ blurb, was indeed ‘powerful’. She thought it ‘a very well-written book, but so upsetting – one is really glad never to have had the chance of that kind of life!’
Pym’s novels have long suffered from the kind of ad feminam praise which diminishes them as ‘exquisite miniatures’, ‘enchanting’, ‘endearing’ or ‘charming’. The comparison with Jane Austen hasn’t always helped. As Byrne observes, Pym’s later novels are darker; perhaps the years of writing without the expectation of being published freed her from the need for constant levity. The Sweet Dove Died, set among the well-heeled upper-middle class, her only novel without a church presence, is also her coolest – her most Jamesian, as Byrne suggests. Quartet in Autumn, written in her sixties, is disaffected and at times savage. Four office workers, all living alone and approaching retirement, face old age. Stranded in the modern world, the elderly are cast-offs, patronised by local do-gooders. Edwin has ‘the freedom that loneliness brings’, seeking solace from the (Anglo-Catholic) Church; Norman is permanently enraged. Bewildered by racist slogans on the Tube – ‘kill asian shit’ scrawled on the walls – Marcia remembers the hospital orderly who wheeled her to the operating theatre and called her ‘dear’. Nostalgia is given short shrift. Taken aback to see young people kissing in the park, Letty doubts that she would even have noticed them when she was twenty. Ageing, like memory, is a process of self-correction.
Holt’s biography purposefully conjured ‘an era and an ethos now gone’. Byrne makes Pym less of a period piece. Much of the copious sociological detail in the fiction might now need annotation, which may be the reason Byrne’s quotations rely heavily on ellipses. Sometimes she misses the class register; sometimes she plays down Pym’s snobbery. Two-tone shoes on a man were not only a sign of ‘vulgarity’ but of faithlessness, ‘co-respondent shoes’, worn by the sort of chap liable to be a third party in divorce cases. A long-winded diary entry about an aborted date in Soho (among ‘happy little queer couples’) relies for its humour not only on Pym’s embarrassment at having to ask a pub landlord for the ‘Ladies’, but on his use of the word ‘toilet’ instead of ‘lavatory’. Byrne changes it to ‘loo’ and then to the meaningless ‘bathroom’, presumably with an eye on US readers. Pym’s irony is occasionally lost. Byrne twice refers to her visit to Austen’s cottage in Chawton in the summer of 1969 when she was desperate to find a publisher. She quotes Pym’s diary: ‘I put my hand down on Jane’s desk and bring it up covered in dust. Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me!’ It sounds like a cry for help but the next sentence (twice omitted) is typically deflating and typically novelistic: ‘One would have imagined the devoted female custodian going round with her duster at least every other day.’
Byrne’s own romanticism, in other words, sometimes gets the better of her. She ends her epilogue with a quotation from ‘An Arundel Tomb’, the Larkin poem ‘Pym loved best’. Except it wasn’t. Pym told him her favourites from The Whitsun Weddings were the far more discomfiting ‘Faith Healing’ and ‘Ambulances’. But Larkin had recorded ‘An Arundel Tomb,’ and so Pym chose it as one of her Desert Island Discs, her appearance on the programme a measure of her late celebrity. The poem ends, Byrne writes, ‘with a simple and beautiful sentiment: “What will survive of us is Love.”’ Except it doesn’t. The poem is equivocal. Time passing has turned the effigy of the knight and his wife on the tomb into an ‘untruth’, an unintended symbol of fidelity which was ‘hardly meant’ to prove ‘Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love.’ Larkin would not have capitalised ‘Love’.
This is a celebratory biography, but it reminded me how crucial and how costly it was for women of Pym’s class to observe what she called ‘behaviour’. The rules for a respectable woman were stringent. Being openly sexy instantly meant losing caste; drawing attention to oneself by crying in public was ‘shaming’, while so many other actions were ‘common’: eating in the street, combing ‘one’s hair’ (using ‘you’ instead of ‘one’). But repression of feeling was also a form of consideration for others. It allowed generations of Englishwomen to be ‘splendid’ in adversity, as Pym hoped to be, even on her deathbed, so as to save others pain. Biography is not usually so restrained. I winced when Byrne followed Pym into the bedroom, second-guessing how she felt after her mastectomy, ‘forced’ to look ‘every night when she undressed for bed’ at what Byrne calls ‘the mutilation of her body’.
Novelists, Pym thought, were detectives and anthropologists. They are also hoarders, stashing away the debris of life. Her title for another unfinished novel begun in Oxford, ‘The Lumber Room’, is an image both of memory and, as Byrne writes, of the human heart. But the lumber room is not a shrine. Talismanic objects lose their power. There is, Pym wrote in her diary, something ‘rather self-conscious and cultivated’ in keeping them. Her great loves were also – as she acknowledged – undergraduate infatuations, which fortunately mutated into friendships. Pym loved relics but often found them ludicrous as well as poignant – witness the mummified furball coughed up by Snowy, a long dead cat, in Quartet in Autumn.
One person’s relic is another’s junk. The parish jumble sale – a more public version of the lumber room – is Pym’s main metaphor for loss of attachment and for its ineradicable traces. It’s hard not to see it also as a benign evocation of her imaginary Little England. In A Few Green Leaves, her final novel, Daphne, the rector’s sister, sorts discarded clothing and unwanted bric-à-brac. The inventory of the once cherished is ecumenical – bent cutlery, half-used cosmetics, old photographs, plastic earrings, a dog-eared prayer book and a steamy paperback. Daphne pauses on a vaguely familiar print of a Scottish terrier ‘looking up appealingly at its invisible master’: ‘Thy Servant a Dog’. It belongs to an age when single women kept house for their male relatives and brides promised to obey. Daphne is a romantic. She longs to escape from the draughty rectory to live in Greece in a small white house. And she does leave. She sets up home with a bossy woman friend in a leafy grove in Birmingham and gets a dog, Bruce. Bruce, she tells the vet, is terribly well-behaved.