Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Spending a week with Miss Pym

Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas and Amanda

Barbara Pym is noted, among many other things, for the pleasure with which she describes food in her books, a characteristic which, for her centenary, was celebrated with a virtual tea party on FaceBook. On her birthday, 2 June, enthusiasts all over the world chose appropriately delicious cakes and posted pictures of tea parties in her honour. The best I could do was this, from the first-class waiting room at King's Cross:

The previous day I'd attended the 40th AGM on the Alliance of Literary Societies, hosted at Barbara Pym's old college in Oxford in the Barbara Pym Society. St Hilda's was the prefect place for such an event, basking in unexpected sunshine which allowed us to have drinks by the river in the evening. We were treated to a dramatisation of two scenes from Excellent Women which drew delightedly knowing giggles from the audience; later, after dinner, representatives from the various societies there read from "their own" authors, with contributions varying from Blake (very brief and apposite!) to Siegfried Sassoon. Since I was there because my membership of the Angela Thirkell Society, I particularly enjoyed the reading by our President, Penny Aldred, on "educated women" -- many Thirkell characters having decidedly trenchant views on the subject.

I was very laden as I waited for my train next day, having as usual acquired various books, including these additions to my complete set of Pym novels:

I'd seen Barbara in the Bodleian on the BPS website, and had been hoping it would be there! No Soft Incense is proving fascinating as, throwing an invaluable light on Anglo-Catholicism as it appears in her books.

I was glad that before I went to Oxford I'd read Hazel Holt's biography, A Lot to Ask. I'd read A Very Private Eye when it was first published and, although a lot was familiar from that, it was good to have an outline of her life fresh in my mind when listening to the two excellent talks during the day, BPS chair Clemence Schultze on Barbara Pym: An 'Unashamed Reader', and James Booth on Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym: An Elective Affinity. Clemence Schultze drew attention to the density of literary quotation in Pym's early novels and their importance to her characters, contrasting it particularly with Quartet in Autumn, which is set in a library but no-one really reads. I can't really comment further on this since I am saving Quartet in Autumn to read this weekend, but I'm aware that this talk is already influencing how I read Pym.

The second, highly engaging, talk was on Pym and Larkin - I'd long been familiar with the story that Larkin was one those who helped to restore interest in Pym's writing, but it was interesting to learn that he'd really wanted to be a novelist himself. I'd already been planning to read the two novels that he published in his twenties, but I now intend to do that soon, and alongside my reading of BP.

As well as the biography, I have been reading Pym herself for the last few weeks, first comparing Some Tame Gazelle with A Few Green Leaves, both set in typical Pym territory, the English village, with its church, its clergy, and its women without whom the village institutions would fade. The latter is less funny than the first, but more sharply amusing. Intriguing to know that the infuriating Archdeacon Hoccleve (STG) is a portrait of Pym's great love, Henry Harvey, and that spinsters Belinda and Harriet are Barbara and her sister Hilary. And, indeed, that Pym was imagining herself and her friends thirty years on. It would have been so easy, in the circumstances, to slide into caricature, yet the characters are drawn with such affection and sympathy. A Few Green Leaves, written near the end of her life is, as one might expect, more poignant, but no less sharply observed. I think I feel most for Daphne, the vicar's sister, whose life has been really rather disappointing. I wrote about this book in more detail some years ago.

I went on slightly at random to Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings -- that last is definitely one of my favourites, with its trio of priests, Fathers Thames, Bode and Ransome and the very, very excellent Mary Beamish who might (horrors!) have a vocation to be a nun (almost straying into Iris Murdoch territory here). Its heroine is Wilmet, a young married woman who feels that the events of life have rather passed her by. Yearning for a little more romance than she has with her husband, a very prosaic civil servant, she persuades herself into being in love with a friend's rather raffish brother but, although he invites her to meet him from time to time, he's unsatisfactory as lover material. Wilmet pines gently between taking tea with various friends and acquaintances, shopping for little luxuries (Wilmet's wanderings, her mother-in-law affectionately calls these expeditions), studying Portuguese in a desultory way and attending church events. Despite her inability to see what's under her nose, Wilmet enjoys observing the foibles of those around her and doesn't entirely lack the capacity for self-criticism. I think this is the crux of Pym's appeal, and why she has such a faithful following: she has the knack of presenting, in her main characters, the sort of internal landscape her readers are entirely comfortable with -- romantic but rational, often self-indulgent but always at core self-aware, observant, questioning, essentially kindly, sometimes foolish... meanwhile, they are surrounded by people who exhibit the kind of faults and quirks we recognise as being present in ourselves to greater or lesser degree. Her treatment of all her characters is empathic.

I moved on to An Academic Question - a re-read, but I need to collect my thoughts before posting about it. And to decide which to read next...


  1. So far, I have not yet read anything by or about Barbara Pym, but your descriptions certainly make me want to.
    What a nice idea, to host a tea party in her honour!

    1. I hope you'll try her work, and perhaps get hooked :-)

  2. That sounds very interesting, although you can count me out of the Barbara Pym fan club.

    I've read A Girl in Winter and can say that Larkin was a better poet than he was a novelist.

    1. I think he realised that, and it made him appreciate her work all the more. I don't have great expectations of his novels, but I think they will be an interesting comparison nonetheless.

  3. First of all, I must say that I envy you that conference! Sounds wonderful. Those two books you purchased both sound fascinating as well; my fondness for Pym has increased greatly this week thanks to all the reading and the posts I've read. Glad you were able to join in on the tea party in some small way!

    1. I had a lovely time while I was waiting for my train reading about other people's celebrations, so I didn't feel at all left out. I wish I could go to the centenary conference in September, but I've got two other commitments on completely incompatible dates and I can't spend the whole month travelling :-(