Let’s say it’s a drizzly, early fall afternoon in London, 1948. In a flat in Pimlico, a woman sits quietly revising a novel.We ring the bell and, although uninvited, the kettle is put on, bread and butter are brought out, and we sit down to chat with author Barbara Pym.
Should I stop this little fantasy here? Maybe you haven’t heard of Pym? I hadn’t until Alexandra McCall Smith (Mr. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) championed her 1952 novel, Excellent Women, in a 2008 article in The Guardian.
What luck I did find her! Pym is an author whose oeuvre I dread finishing, only to know that I will read her again and again.
Great, you say. But what does this Pym write about? First of all, if you’re into the school of “write what you know,” Pym’s your woman. What she knew, broadly, was this: church life, academic life (she read English Literature at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford), Italy and the Wrens (she was posted to Naples in 1944), and anthropology (from her work at the International African Institute in London).
From this collection of experiences, Pym sets down a group of characters (the more you read, the more familiar they become) and lets their lives cyclically unwind across the seasons of a year.
Much has been made of Pym’s focus on the everyday, the small detail (it’s hard to find her named without coming across Jane Austen at the same time). This is true. The minutia of life is gently and methodically enacted in her works but, despite the cups of tea and cake, the clergymen, and the — dare I say it — feminine details, Pym is not saccharine. She offers dry humor and a touch of modern existentialism, but always with a deft hand. There is never too much of anything in Pym’s world. Moderation rules. I think this is what is attractive to me, at least, in her work. Just as she lays her plots against the natural balance of the year’s unfolding, her characters’ navigate a post-WWII world that, through glimpses, we can see is precarious, but which we also discover was liveable and well-lived.
For more Barbara Pym:
And finally, two of my favourites: