REVIEW

A new biography suggests that Barbara Pym was the 'most underrated novelist' of her time

Miss Pym at her desk in the African Institute: editor by day, novelist by night. Picture: The Barbara Pym Society
Miss Pym at her desk in the African Institute: editor by day, novelist by night. Picture: The Barbara Pym Society
  • The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, by Paula Bryne. Weidenfeld, $55.

Paula Byrne is the author of six bestselling non-fiction books including The Real Jane Austen; Kick Kennedy, JFK's Forgotten Sister and Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead.

Byrne now lives in Arizona; pre-Covid, she was able to extensively mine the Barbara Pym archive in the Bodleian Library Oxford.

Byrne regards Pym (1913- 1980) as one of the greatest post-World War II English novelists. Pym has been called the 20th century Jane Austen, but her novels have many similarities also with the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell and Anthony Trollope. Byrne brilliantly evokes the private and public lives of Barbara Pym, with the underlying aim to "to introduce a wider audience to her life, world and work".

Pym labelled her own diaries "The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym" and Byrne follows that title through in numerous short chapters with headings such as, "In which Miss Pam returns to Oxford"; "In which our heroine goes to Germany for the third time and sleeps with her Nazi"; and "In which Mr Philip Larkin is Disgruntled (when was he not?)".

Born into a middle-class family in Shropshire, Pym went up, in 1931, to St Hilda's College Oxford to read English at a time when women were in a minority at the university. Byrne comments that Pym was "one of the most liberated, independent women of her time. Ever since Oxford she had been sexually active and unashamed of being so."

Pym's relationships were numerous and complicated. She kept falling for men who didn't love her, were homosexual or were already married. Byrne comments "the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt". These flawed relationships were to feed directly into the characters in her novels.

Pym visited Germany six times in the mid-1930s, falling in love with a young SS officer, Friedbert Gluck. She took to wearing Gluck's swastika brooch around Oxford. Byrne does not shirk from exposing Pym's Nazi sympathies. World War II changed that perspective and Pym became a Wren.

After the war, she worked as an Assistant Editor at the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, where she remained until her retirement in 1973. The small enclosed environment of the Institute also provided much material for her miniaturist novels laced with social piquancy.

Pym was a lifelong churchgoer in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and clergy of various types, and the "splendid women" of the parish who support them, feature strongly in Pym novels of gentle humour and quiet pathos.

Byrne writes, "Pym's interest in . . . the life of ordinary things roots her novels into specific times and yet there somehow transcend the quotidian and take on a timeless quality . . . Her realism is what enables her readers to inhabit her world . . . there is nothing old-fashioned or cosy about her themes". Byrne comments, "for many reasons, one senses that she would have understood the #MeToo movement".

Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was published in 1950 and five more novels appeared until 1963. The swinging 60's, however, made her internally-focused novels seem out of date, at least to her publisher Jonathan Cape, who unceremoniously rejected her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment.

More rejections followed. Pym would eventually forgive Tom Maschler, Cape's publisher, but not before naming a vilely coloured milk jelly pudding after him.

In her literary wilderness, she made a pilgrimage to Jane Austen's cottage at Chawton, writing in her 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".

Byrne notes Pym's, "sense of identity had been founded on her literary status".

Retiring in 1973, she moved to an Oxfordshire cottage with her sister, Hilary. But then everything changed. In 1977, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her in the Times Literary Supplement as the most underrated novelist of the 20th century. Larkin commenting,"she has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life".

Publishers came flocking back, and her book Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize. The BBC in 1992 made "Miss Pym's Day Out" , starring Patricia Routledge, which followed Pym through the Booker prize day. It's available on You Tube. Pym thoroughly appreciated her literary restoration, with more novels appearing both before and after her death from cancer at 66.

Byrne concludes Pym is "one of the great writers of the human heart", her novels "providing a fascinating social history of the transformation of middle-class women's lives across the 20th century".

This story Pym the 'Jane Austen' of her time first appeared on The Canberra Times.