Middlebrow Highs #2: Barbara Pym – The Drama of the Prosaic

There is perhaps no better introduction to the work of Barbara Pym (1913-1980) than the second of her twelve novels, Excellent Women (1952). On the face of it, a novel about ‘an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties’ (Pym, 1952) sounds less than promising, especially when the reader discovers that she is a clergyman’s daughter, whose life is lived within earshot of the pulpit. It quickly becomes apparent that it is a small world in which involvement in or interest in other people’s business is almost expected of one in narrator Mildred Lathbury’s position. Even her very name – Mildred – is somehow less than inspiring; for one of my generation, it evokes questionable memories of a popular sitcom of the 1970s, one of whose social-climbing characters was a namesake.

Barbara Pym, Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society
Image via Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society

Philip Larkin, with whom Barbara had enjoyed a warm correspondence since 1961, helped bring about a revival in her literary fortunes when, in 1977, he chose her as the most underrated writer of the twentieth century, saying he’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen. The Times Literary Supplement had asked well-known writers and critics to nominate a writer they felt was under-appreciated and Pym’s name was the only name to appear twice – she was also chosen by the biographer, historian and scholar, Lord David Cecil (1902 – 1986). Prior to this, her career had been in the doldrums since the publication in 1961 of her novel No Fond Return of Love.

From 1963 she had experienced rejection when her publishers, Jonathon Cape, stopped publishing her work on the grounds that they would no longer sell enough copies to cover costs. What, she asked in the diary she maintained for many years, was wrong with being obsessed with the trivia of everyday middlebrow life. What higher, nobler and more worthwhile things occupied the minds of her critics? In 1943, still an unpublished author, Pym wondered why anyone would make such a thing of her desolation following a short-lived love affair. Is your life, she asked the would-be readers of her diary, so full of ‘large, big wonderful things’ that you don’t need to seek consolation from among trivia such as daffodils or an old armchair? It was the trivialities of middlebrow life that provided the material for her novels. Maybe the publishers who rejected her work regarded her as representing something so unfashionable as to be of interest only to her (and her kind) and certainly not worthy of the attention of the readers they sought to attract. Yet, is it not arguable that, despite the efforts of social media to portray it as otherwise, most people live in a world framed by mundane concerns? Barbara Pym’s writing speaks loudly to those who suspect this might be the case. They are the people whose lives never achieve the dramatic impact in which the shallowness of “celebrity” finds its depth. It’s not from their ranks that a Jade Goody or a notorious Sloaney Debutante, such as Idina Sackville, immortalised in Frances Osborne’s biography The Bolter, emerges. Her writing is firmly middle-class and middlebrow, as are so many people.

Pym spent those years of rejection working in the International African Institute, retiring to live in Oxfordshire (she’d been educated in St. Hilda’s College, Oxford) in 1974. She did, however, continue to write, so when the revival of interest in her work began in 1977, she was able to take immediate advantage of her changed circumstances with the publication in the same year of Quartet in Autumn, a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Two further books followed, the last of which A Few Green Leaves was published posthumously.

cover of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.
Image via Hachette.

Whilst Pym has always had her champions among the discerning, a broader interest in her work ebbs and flow. She is often compared to Jane Austen, and both wrote about a small world that could only have been in England in which minor troubles were magnified but never disproportionately. The drama that does occasionally occur is of the mild sort, unlikely ever to fuel a reality TV show.

Pym’s work is about isolation and irrelevance, feelings experienced by many people. Her characters reach out to one another but never quite make that telling connection. They exist in a shared social world but have no sense of others’ experience of that world. Yet, the horizon of their hopes and dreams remains contained forever within its confine. On the surface, it might appear to be rather a narrow world, but when those dreams are as consequential as falling in love and marrying the right person, the boundaries of that arena are expanded infinitesimally. That the pool of contenders for that role comprises people whose faults and failings are already well known to one makes the choice of marriage an even braver decision than it might otherwise be. One truly knows what one is getting into, just as it is in Austen’s work. Pym is a shrewd observer of this sphere in which a certain middle-class sensibility holds sway. Because it is the only world she, her characters and we have, sadness and hilarity must be squeezed out of whatever situation is available, often at the same time.

Matthew Schneier, writing in the New York Times (Aug 24, 2017), puts it that it is still more common to meet readers who mean to read Pym than have actually read her. But you should read her, beginning with Excellent Women, a near-perfect almost eulogy to those legions of women without whom the often unseen machinery of society would cease to function. Pym was a committed Christian all her life and even if the Anglican Church is the background to her novels, she is by no means puritanical. In fact, it is her dissection of the human frailties of those who populate that milieu that is one of her chief strengths as a writer.

Barbara Pym had her faults, not least her flirtation with Nazism (which I shall address in a future column), but as a writer she is deserving of attention – you really will Laugh Out Loud.