Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rediscovering Barbara Pym

For the past few weeks, as well as still being in the process of rereading Whittemore, I’ve taken to reading Barbara Pym again. I have a small collection of her books which I haven’t looked at for years.

I started with Excellent Women, a very good choice it turns out, as it typifies the Pym style. The Barbara Pym style is basically a cosy type of story with handsome vicars, distressed gentle women, jumble sales and the making of endless cups of tea being common threads through all her novels. Nothing much really happens, certainly nothing shocking or violent, but they are page turners all the same and beautifully written. A delicate irony infuses Pym’s prose and sharp and witty observations of human frailties and foibles keep the reader interested and entertained.

The emphasis on churchy settings is not in any way religious, but rather used in a social context. There is an old fashioned charm to Barbara Pym’s novels, set as they are in the post war world of the 1950s, however her observations on the human condition are universal and thoroughly modern. She has been described as the chronicler of quiet lives and her characters are unremarkable people. The heroine of Excellent Women is Mildred (not a name you hear these days) Lathbury a youngish spinster, happy to be so. Her life is made interesting by the arrival of the Napiers, Rocky and Helena, to occupy the flat below hers. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rocky seems to exist solely as a charmer of women and as a social assett having spent the war in Italy attached to the Admiralty making Wrens feel at home in foreign parts. He’s a splendid character and Pym’s artistry as a writer is made patent through his characterisation as a shallow, but personable man.

Anthropologists also feature in Pym’s novels, as she worked for many years at the Africa Institute and had first hand acquaintance with the species. The wonderfully named Everard Bone is Helena Napier’s colleague and adds another dimension to Mildred’s quiet life which has until the advent of the Napiers, revolved around the local church scene and her part-time job of providing assistance to distressed gentlewomen.

Barbara Pym wrote twelve books in all, but only achieved fame shortly before her death, when she was nominated as the most underrated writer of the century by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, in an article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977.

I am currently reading A Glass of Blessings another of her well regarded early novels. I picked up two of her novels, missing from my collection today in a second hand bookshop.
They were Some Tame Gazelle and An Unsuitable Attachment.

Here’s the first paragraph from Some Tame Gazelle, to give you some idea of Pym’s style:

“The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when he sat down. Belinda had noticed it when they had met him for the first time at the vicarage last week and had felt quite embarrassed. Perhaps Harriet could say something to him about it. Her blunt jolly manner could carry off these little awkwardnesses much better than Belinda’s timidity. Of course he might think it none of their business, as indeed it was not, but Belinda rather doubted whether he thought at all, if one were to judge by the quality of his first sermon.”

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