Monday, January 11, 2010

A small square of ivory

The quintessentially English writer Barbara Pym - whose best novels came out in the 1950s and who has been likened to Jane Austen - died 30 years ago today. The in-vogue author Alexander McCall Smith wrote recently of her enduring appeal and he likened her writing to pictures on a small square of ivory. Her diaries, published posthumously, show tact and wit, according to The New York Times, but are somewhat self-pitying.

Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, in 1913 and studied at Huyton College, and St Hilda’s, Oxford. During the Second World War she worked for the censorship office in Bristol, then served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, in Britain and in Naples. After the war she joined the International African Institute, helping to edit one of its journals, and worked there until the mid-1970s. She never married despite several close relationships with men, including the future Conservative politician Julian Amery.

Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was published in 1950; others, such as Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. In the 1960s, though, her manuscripts were rejected as being out of step with the times; and, in the early 1970s, her health deteriorated significantly. It was not until 1977, when she was named in the Times Literary Supplement as one of the most under-rated novelists of the century, that, after more than 15 years in a literary wilderness, Quartet in Autumn was published, a book which was then shortlisted for the Booker prize. She died three decades ago today on 11 January 1980.

In a recent review of Excellent Women (republished by Virago in 2008), the novelist Alexander McCall Smith considered Pym’s enduring appeal: ‘Like Jane Austen, Pym painted her pictures on a small square of ivory, and covered much the same territory as did her better-known predecessor: the details of smallish lives led to places that could only be in England. Neither used a megaphone; neither said much about the great issues of their time. In Excellent Women the reader is made aware of the fact that, not long before, there had been a war, but what that war was about is not touched upon. With Jane Austen, the fact that a major war was raging hardly impinges upon the consciousness of the characters. And yet although Pym’s novels are about as far away as possible from engagement with the great political and social issues, they are powerful reminders that one of the great and proper concerns of literature is that motley cluster of small concerns that makes up our day-to-day lives. This is what gives her novels their permanent appeal.’

A few years after Pym’s death, in 1984, Macmillan published A Very Private Eye, subtitled on the title page as The Diaries, Letters and Notebooks of Barbara Pym (although bizarrely the front cover title is slightly different: A Very Private Eye - An Autobiography in Letters and Diaries). Pym’s own texts were put together and edited by her sister Hilary Pym and her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt. In her preface, Holt says that Pym started keeping a diary in 1931, and that her diary entries were ‘written - and certainly preserved - to be read’. Although she gave up writing a formal diary after the war, Pym continued writing about the events or her life - as well as jotting down thoughts and ideas - in notebooks for the rest of her life.

I can only find one online review of the book - by Anatole Broyard for The New York Times. He defined Pym’s novels as ‘quintessentially English’ and focuses largely on what the diaries tell the reader about Pym’s love life. Broyard says her novels are ‘quintessentially English’ and describe relations between men and women with ‘gentle ironies’. She tended to fall in love with ‘men who did not admire her enough’, he says, and suggests that she goes on about her first love, Henry Stanley Harvey, ‘with a hopeless persistence that she would never have allowed in her novels’.

A Very Private Eye reveals, Broyard says, that Pym ‘always seemed to love more than she was loved’. He continues: ‘When she fell for a man, she would research him exhaustively, even ‘tail’ him through the streets. It is conceivable that she frightened men away by her enthusiasm. While she is self-pitying in her diaries, she does it with so much wit and tact that we don’t mind. During an unhappy love affair with a writer-broadcaster, she wrote that ‘It is sometimes intolerable to be a woman and have no second bests or spares or anything.’ She also said, ‘What a lot one learns about the technique of misery!’ and ‘Now I can see how people get eccentric.’ ’

Here is one longish extract from A Very Private Eye and one which seems to touch briefly but pertinently on different strands of her life and personality.

20 February 1941
‘This evening I was looking for a notebook in which to keep a record of dreams and I found this diary, this sentimental journal or whatever you (Gentle Reader in the Bodleian) like to call it. Perhaps it is hardly a diary, for I keep a bald record of everyday happenings in a neat little book which has a set space for every day. And I write in this book only when the occasion seems to demand it. In the spring, when I think of past loves like Jay or when something momentous happens, like the invasion of Holland and Belgium (but not when France gave in - perhaps I’d got used to shocks by then. Now all I remember is sitting in deck chairs on the lawn with Hilary, the garden full of sweet williams.

It hasn’t been such a bad winter as last, although there has been all the frightful bombing. We’ve have sirens too and a few bumps in the distance (in August) but nothing worse than long nights at the First Aid Post, smoking, knitting, talking, eating and trying to sleep in the stuffy air, covered with scratchy Army blankets.

I have been doing quite a lot of writing lately which is satisfying and pleases me if nobody else. I have also been improving my mind - I’ve read Jane Austen - Emma most lately, Scott - Redgauntlet, Johnson’s Tour in the Hebrides with Boswell - I’ve had a Scottish craze lately. At the Tented Camp I grew fond of a young soldier who had been a waiter in many of the best Scottish hotels - LMS on the china, stags’ heads and palms. Anyway, because of that, or for some more subtle reason, I took to listening to the news in Gaelic and poring over maps of the West Highlands.

I’ve also read Vanity Fair, after hearing it as a serial on the wireless. That marvellous Waterloo chapter was especially appropriate this summer although I had nobody in France or at Dunkirk. But perhaps one could almost enjoy it for that reason - only enjoy isn’t at all the word.

This very evening on which I’ve written all this I was looking among my books and took out John Piper’s Shell Guide to Oxfordshire. I went all through it, a nostalgic pilgrimage in churches and churchyards - most of which I have never seen at all but shall one day - and lingered over the view of Blenheim’s park and lake by which are quoted some favourite lines of Matthew Arnold from Thyrsis.’

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