The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym Review: A Modern Jane Austen

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you are familiar with the quiet little gems that are the novels of Barbara Pym, you may be surprised by the number and intensity of the writer’s love affairs—all doomed. Paula Byrne brings these mostly painful experiences to the fore in “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Biography” and shows how Pym wrung from them a brisk, coolly ironic view of the relations between men and women. Ms. Byrne, the author of two novels, as well as books, on Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, among others, gives us a work that surpasses in length and detail the two previous book-length accounts of Pym’s life: the more discreet “A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym” (1990) by her friend, Hazel Holt, and “A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters,” (1984) edited by Holt and Pym’s sister, Hilary. Perhaps we can hope that now, with this huge biography and with all Pym’s novels available in print, this master of the comedy of resignation will not disappear again—as she almost did during her own life.

Among the many relics of the buttoned-up past that the 1960s kicked to the gutter were the novels of Barbara Pym. To a big, brash, in-your-face era, they were sadly outmoded, smacking of postwar privation and preoccupied with spinsters, seasoned widows, paid companions, young curates and fortifying cups of tea. In addition to the novels’ seemingly obsolete outlook, the problem was also that Pym’s genius lay in her attention to what people mistakenly think of as trivialities—sharing a bathroom, attending scholarly lectures, darning the socks of another woman’s husband, eating spaghetti—the minor travails which, in fact, make up most of life’s substance. The novels’ bleak comedy and subtle wit were lost on an age that admired provocativeness over restraint and was deaf to irony.

Pym got the message in 1963. Already the author of six well-received novels, she sent the manuscript of her seventh to her longtime publisher, Jonathan Cape—only to receive a curt letter of rejection. It stunned her. “She had been, in her own words, ‘offloaded,’ ” writes Ms. Byrne. “And the men responsible had not bothered to give her the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. It was the most cowardly and cruellest of rejections and it affected her for a long, long time.” She tried other publishers with no success and so began what Pym called her “wilderness years.”

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Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born in 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire, in the west of England, the first child of Frederic Crampton Pym, a solicitor, and his wife, Irena. Her sister, Hilary, was born three years later; the sisters were very close and set up house together in later life. In 1931 Pym went up to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied English and embarked on a number of infatuations, affairs and heartbreaks. She was remarkably ahead of her time in sexual liberation (“I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to its being seen”) and, as Ms. Byrne shows, men were central to her life. She courted their attention, slept with them, typed for them and mended their clothes: Being without a man, she wrote years later, was a “nice lump of misery which goes everywhere like a dog.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal