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Miss Pymska

Barbara Pym lived life with a luxuriant bent toward fantasy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne (William Collins: 2022), 704 pages. 

In A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym (1990), Hazel Holt, Pym’s longtime friend, recounts that after the conclusion of yet another “unsuitable attachment,” 29-year-old Pym found comfort in a sentence from Logan Pearsall Smith’s Trivia: “So I never lose a sense of the whimsical and perilous charm of daily life, with its meetings and words and accidents.” This to me captures much of the enduring charm of Pym’s fiction. Attentiveness to the ordinary round remained in tension with a capacity for fantasy that was just as vital to her art as a novelist, however much it played havoc with her emotional life.

This was painfully evident in Pym’s relationships with men, not least in her brief but intense attachment to Friedrich Glück, a young SS officer whom she met on a trip to Germany in 1934. Later, as Paula Byrne writes in her new biography, Pym was “filled with horror and guilt” at her naïve attitude toward the Nazis. 

I won’t rehearse all the details of the semi-miraculous rediscovery of Barbara Pym (in which the poet Philip Larkin played an essential role) in 1977, when she was a few months short of her sixty-fourth birthday. Suffice it to say that almost 15 years earlier, the publisher of Pym’s first six novels, Cape, rejected what was intended to be her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment. There ensued a very long spell in which she was unable to find a publisher, though she continued to write fiction, as she had done since she was a teenager (she completed her first novel, which was unpublished, shortly before she turned seventeen).

It is conventional to wring hands over this brutal interruption of Pym’s career, and yet in retrospect it seems almost providential. She lived long enough to see some of her novels reissued and two new ones published to considerable acclaim. More reissues and previously unpublished novels followed, permitting readers to absorb the whole arc of her career. The result was a degree of attention highlighting her distinctiveness as a writer in a way otherwise impossible to obtain: the fulfillment of her lifelong ambitions as a writer in a form she couldn’t have imagined.

Her first six published novels—Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, Less Than Angels, A Glass of Blessings, and No Fond Return of Love—made her name when reissued in the United States, where Pym had been largely unknown. Dutton published both the reissues and the new titles (including the one Cape had rejected so many years before) in a uniform edition with handsome dust jackets designed by Jacqueline Schuman. 

Of the four “late” novels, two—Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died—were very different in tone from their predecessors. Some reviewers thought they marked an advance, a “deepening”; some chiefly found these novels depressing; and others still (myself included) found them very good while still retaining a preference for books such as Excellent Women, Less Than Angels, and A Glass of Blessings. The other two late novels were in her familiar manner. One of these, An Academic Question, Pym set aside in the early 1970s; it was published in 1986, with a note by Hazel Holt explaining that she had “amalgamated” the two drafts Pym left behind. The other, A Few Green Leaves, completed just before her death from cancer at the age of sixty-six, was published in 1980.

In 1984, Dutton published A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, a superb and wide-ranging selection quarried from Pym’s notebooks and diaries and from her copious correspondence by Hazel Holt and Pym’s sister, Hilary, with whom she lived from 1946 up to her death:

During 1940 and part of 1941, she worked at the YMCA canteen in the local military camp:

Did my nails with Pink Clover but later, doing the money at the camp, it all peeled off.

A Scotsman called me a ‘wee smasher’ but what he meant is rather obscure.

Busy poaching eggs in little machines.

A ravishingly handsome Second Lieutenant poured into an exquisitely tailored overcoat came in, but he studied his book of Gas Drill rather than me.

This was followed by Holt’s A Lot to Ask. Until the publication this year of Paula Byrne’s massive account, these two volumes provided the only significant accounts of Pym’s life.

If you are a longtime fan of Pym, you will certainly want to read Byrne’s book; if you are merely curious, you will find more than enough here to decide whether Pym’s fiction is likely to be your cup of tea. And if (like me) you are interested in literary biography as a genre, apart from the particular subject, you will want to see this unconventional example. Too many “lives” follow the same pattern. Indeed, if you read a lot of literary biographies, you may sometimes have the weird sensation that the boundaries between them are dissolving, as if they had somehow commingled on your shelves in one vast saga.

But not if you are reading Paula Byrne. Her The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (2013) dispensed with strictly chronological narrative. Each of the book’s chapters focuses on a particular object (“The East Indian Shawl,” “The Card of Lace,” “The Box of Letters”) evoking a different aspect of Austen’s experience and sensibility. Austen in this telling was far more knowledgeable about events in the wider world than has typically been supposed, and that knowledge, Byrne argues, informs Austen’s fiction. The effect is exhilarating; it makes the reader aware that this account of Austen is itself a work of the imagination (as is every biography), not simply a slab of Real Life.

While Byrne’s biography of Barbara Pym is chronologically organized, it is self-consciously unconventional in other ways, starting with the cover photo of Pym, legs askew, dress lifted above her knees by a Shropshire breeze. This impudence is amplified by the arch chapter headings: “Miss Pym’s Summer of Love,” “The End of the Affair,” “In which our Heroine goes to Germany for the third time and sleeps with her Nazi,” “Miss Pym the Novelist takes Tea with the Distinguished Author Elizabeth Bowen in the Company of Several Homosexuals,” and so on.

Moreover, the chapters tend to be very brief (some only two or three pages), so that the narrative is markedly episodic, akin to the entries in Pym’s notebook and diaries to which Byrne makes frequent reference. The intent, as with Byrne’s excellent Austen biography, is to defamiliarize. Byrne seems unduly concerned with the perception that Pym is a cozy writer. I quite agree with Byrne on this point, if the description is taken in reductive sense; on the other hand, to the extent that “cozy” suggests “richly companionable,” in a way that doesn’t at all preclude reckoning with sadness and loss and sheer absurdity, I wonder what the fuss is about. 

Byrne relishes Pym’s penchant for imagining alter egos: “Sandra,” for instance, a “sexy, glamorous, free-spirited creature” who “wore tight skirts and provocative red blouses” and “flirted with boys and wore red lipstick to match her nail polish”; and “Pymska,” my favorite, Pym’s Finnish double. This emphasis, not at all inconsistent with the account of Pym we had from A Very Private Eye and A Lot to Ask, underlines Pym’s luxuriant bent toward fantasy.

But while I am immensely grateful to Byrne for taking this biography on (see her “Afterword” for an account of why she did and what she hoped to accomplish), I do have two major complaints to register. First, I was very disappointed that Pym’s work at the International African Institute and its journal, Africa, over a period of 28 years (it was there that she met Hazel Holt), received such limited attention.

Even more disappointing, especially for readers like me who share Pym’s faith, is the grossly inadequate attention given to Pym’s lifelong commitments as a Christian of the Anglican persuasion. Certainly Byrne notes the prominence of clergy, churchgoing, and such in Pym’s fiction; she could hardly do otherwise. The index includes many references under the heading of “clergy, life of.” But beyond that sort of thing we get the bare minimum. I have no idea why this happened, and it would be foolish to speculate. Certainly it is a significant defect in a major biography.

John Wilson is contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at the Marginalia Review of Books.