I think Barbara Pym is one of the great unsung heroines of the time. Her novels are how I would like to return in the next life: small but perfectly formed. I’m not even remotely surprised that a “Barbara Pym Society” exists, complete with annual AGM and conferences at St Hilda’s College, where she used to study eons back. If I lived close enough I’d be hankering to join it too, and am sorely tempted to print off Ellen Miller’s comprehensive work ‘Following Barbara’s Footsteps’, ready to don trekking boots and set off next holiday retracing her residential chronology.
Yet it would appear that so many people have never heard of or read this author, even now. Virago books celebrated the centenary of her birth in 2013, yet sadly she died prematurely in 1980, just a few short years after she shot to brief stardom by being unexpectedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977, after years in the wilderness. I sat, gripped and very moved, listening to her chat with Rom Plomley in 1978 on Desert Island Discs the other day (my Offspring despair of the way I choose to spend my Sunday afternoons, but I will be forever indebted to whoever invented the podcast). There is a quiet dignity to her words recounting, in a suitably understated way, her long barren years between 1963 and 1977, when her publishers abandoned her ‘uneventful’ stories against the backdrop of the Swinging Sixties, and she continued to write “though with less enthusiasm, really”, even trying once to get published under a man’s name … Her friend and colleague Hazel Holt describes how “painful” it was to witness her constant rejections, when “the books that were published then seemed to all her friends dross compared with the gold that was being refused”.
It was only with the advent of a survey carried out by the Times Literary Supplement, celebrating their 75th year of publication and asking for overrated and neglected novelists that the tide turned. Both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil famously sang her praises from the rooftops, and she was the only novelist to be named twice. Mr Larkin enthused that her books “give an unrivalled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England. She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life”, while His Lordship went even further: “(her) unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels…are for me the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years” – within no time at all, Ms Pym went from being one of the most forgotten to one of the most acclaimed ‘underrated novelists of the twentieth century’, quite the upended claim to fame – yet Robert McCrum hasn’t included her in his recent 100 Best Novels written in English, for instance (more on that anon), her books are often overlooked, and I fear her light is still sadly hidden all too often under that proverbial bushel.
Bushels are something the protagonists in the shortlisted novel “Quartet in Autumn” know all too much about. Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman are the Famous Four of this absolutely fabulous work: a tight yet disparate group of elderly single people who work together in the same office and who are now confronted with their individual maturing years. The writing is on the wall :
“The organisation where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working….
The activities of their department seemed to be shrouded in mystery – something to do with records or filing, it was thought, nobody knew for certain, but it was evidently ‘women’s work’, the kind of thing that could easily be replaced by a computer. The most significant thing about it was that nobody was replacing them, indeed the whole department was being phased out and only being kept on until the men working in it reached retirement age”.
There’s no two ways about it – growing old is a hazardous profession at the best of times, and no one in the world is better at depicting human nature under duress. Doesn’t sound like a laugh a minute, I know, but oh my word is this book the business. Barbara Pym is the absolute chronicler of unassuming, often lonely people leading quiet, unremarkable lives. Old-fashioned maybe, self-deprecating most certainly but stealthily and awe-inspiringly brilliant nonetheless. And also unapologetically British.
“Letty drained the last drops of her wine with a feeling of regret. It had not been a very large glass… ‘Don’t tell us you’re planning to have a major operation – the same one as Marcia had,’ Norman joked. There was a feeling that he had gone a little too far and Edwin hastily asked if he should order coffee for all of them. ‘Not for me,’ said Marcia. ‘I really must be going. I have a lot of shopping to do’.”
And later :
“Norman, coming back from work, did not notice the laburnums in full flower in the square garden, but his heart lifted when he saw that an old car, which had been dumped there for over a week, appeared to have been removed. He had got on to the police and the council about that, and the fine summer evening gave him a sense of achievement, an unusual and agreeable sensation for him”.
It’s all very ‘ More tea, Vicar ? ’…
I just recently watched the 45-minute mini film on YouTube of Patricia Routledge playing Barbara Pym and a ‘day in the life of’ situation. We shadow the authoress on a key day in an otherwise one suspects rather hundrum existence – she is off to the Bafta dinner to find out if she is the winner of the coveted Booker prize. It’s an interesting spectacle: the film very cleverly implies that much of the greatness of Barbara Pym’s work lies in the reflections on her own gently disappointed experience. It’s therefore tinged with poignant moments, but rather an odd thing to see, because there are cameo appearances from the actual publisher who famously rejected her work, plus real footage of Penelope Fitzgerald at that same dinner, scenes with sister Hilary and ex colleague Hazel – and it’s worth watching just for a most bizarre scene at the village bazar with none other than top fan Jilly Cooper, to boot…
But how absolutely fabulous to read Alexander McCall Smith’s article and learn that this magnificent author has also been posthumously awarded with more than mere literary prizes: “she has become an adjective, the finest compliment that posterity can pay any writer… To say that a moment is “very Barbara Pym…” – well, I’ll tempt you to read for yourself if you like me hadn’t heard this expression before, and idly wonder if any of us will succeed in dropping it casually into conversation any time soon. Meanwhile, I can almost hear Miss Pym quietly congratulating and silently applauding Star Baker Ian for his “My rosemary has been vindicated” comment last week…. Mary Berry, move over!
Rating : 10/10 – A FAVOURITE BOOK
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977