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I was fortunate to discover her novels in my twenties after graduating from college and I have been returning to them ever since. My favorite is Excellent Women. The narrator and heroine of the book is Mildred Lathbury, a spinster and clergyman's daughter living in London in the 1950's. She works part-time at an organization for impoverished gentlewomen, which is, as she says, " a cause very near to my heart as I felt I was just the kind of person who might one day become one." The rest of her time is filled with church activities and time with friends. Her peaceful existence is shaken up when a glamorous couple moves in next door. The book is filled with humor and wise observations about life. It is the book I reread more than any other, especially when I need cheering up. Barbara Pym is a treasure and one of the best writers that most people don't know about.
You might ask, why is that? Maybe it's because she fell under the radar for many years. Barbara Pym's career as a writer was filled with ups and downs. You might call her the original "comeback kid." Born in Oswestry, Shropshire (near the border of England and Wales) in 1913, she lived with her mother, father and sister in a small English village and had a happy childhood. Like Jane Austen, to whom she is often compared, her life was a quiet one. Her mother was the organist at the parish church and she grew up in the company of vicars, curates, and organists. She was educated at St. Hilda's College at Oxford University and later served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. She worked for most of her life at the International African Institute in London, surrounded by anthropologists. It was a peaceful life but one that she observed with a shrewd eye and a keen sense of humor. She used much of it for her novels, finding inspiration for her stories and characters.
In 1949 she sent a manuscript of her first book Some Tame Gazelle to the publisher Jonathan Cape. It was accepted and published in 1950 to good reviews. Her career was launched. Six novels would follow during the next thirteen years. They are considered the canon of her work and include Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings and No Fond Return of Love. Like Jane Austen, she wrote comedies of manners about the people that she knew. She depicted unassuming people engaged in the ordinary events of life -- jumble sales, the village fete, meetings of the prehistoric society, tea with the vicar, and lunchtime church services.
They take us back to a quaint world of London and the English countryside in the 1950's, peopled by gentlewomen, curates, anthropologists, civil servants and academics. They are quiet novels filled with humor (often the laugh-out-loud kind or, at the very least, eliciting a smile) and serious issues as well -- unrequited love, the need for friendship, the value of community, and the beauty of the ordinary. And, of course, endless pots of tea. One of my favorite passages in "Excellent Women" tells how the heroine Mildred Lathbury moved to London and chose her neighborhood and church after the death of her parents:
"I could just see the church spire through the trees in the square. Now, when they were leafless, it looked beautiful, springing up among the peeling stucco fronts of the houses, prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me.
There were two churches in the district, but I had chosen St. Mary's rather than All Souls'...I gave All Souls' a try; indeed I went there for two Sundays, but when I returned to St. Mary's, Father Mallory stopped me after Mass one morning and said how glad he was to see me again. He and his sister had been quite worried; they feared I might have been ill. After that I had not left St. Mary's again, and Julian Mallory and his sister Winifred had become my friends.
I sometimes thought how strange it was that I should have managed to make a life for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive. But then so many parts of London have a peculiarly village or parochial atmosphere that perhaps it is only a question of choosing one's parish and fitting in."
But the primary ingredient in Barbara Pym's books that keeps me coming back for more is the humor and her insights into the comic moments of life. For example, in "A Glass of Blessings," Mr. Bason, the housekeeper at the vicarage, brags about occasionally "pinching" the vicar's priceless Faberge egg, taking it out of his apron and tossing it into the air. In "Excellent Women," after an acquaintance pokes fun at the heroine Mildred Lathbury for happening to be outside her front door when her new neighbors move in, she thinks, "I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her." And later when her new friends need her advice, she muses, "I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand for every dramatic occasion."
During the fifties and early sixties, Barbara Pym's career flourished. But then, after winning critical praise and financial success with the six novels, she was astonished to discover that it was over. In 1963, she submitted the manuscript for her book An Unsuitable Attachment to Jonathan Cape who rejected it as being out of step with the times. After all, this was the sixties. She revised it and sent it to twenty other publishers, all of whom rejected it as well. She then entered the period of time she called her "literary wilderness." She continued to write several more books during the next 14 years, but was unable to get any of them published.
Then in 1977, Pym's literary fortune changed overnight. "The Times Literary Supplement" polled a group of well-respected writers asking them to name the most underrated writer of the 20th-century. Both Phillip Larkin and Lord David Cecil picked Barbara Pym. She was the only writer named twice. Her reputation was restored, people began to look at her books again, and the ones she had been working on were published right away. One of them, Quartet in Autumn, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. All of her novels were reprinted and in demand. They are all still in print to this day and her books continue to be loved by her fans.
But perhaps the main reason that many people are still unaware of Barbara Pym is the topic of her books. They are not stories of high drama or great action. The characters are ordinary people you might not notice if you passed them on the street. Instead, her books are about finding beauty in the small moments of life, the extraordinary in the everyday, the comedy of life as it plays out in the small and circumscribed world of her novels, and universal truths about human nature that always ring true. We smile, we nod, we are happy to be in the company of a cozy friend, one who is "caught with a teapot in (her) hand for every dramatic situation in life."
Do you have a favorite Barbara Pym novel?
If you want to join in on the fun, go here to participate in the Barbara Pym Reading Week. You can also go to The Barbara Pym Society website to find out about other celebrations of her 100th birthday, including events at Harvard and Oxford Universities.