Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Barbara Pym 1913-1980

I discovered Barbara Pym in the later 1990s by virtue of a bookgroup which chose Quartet in Autumn as its monthly read. It wasn’t the book itself that encouraged me to tramp to the public library for a copy; it was the enthusiasm of the group members overall for this woman’s work, the flurry of chatter about these stories, these characters.

Excellent Women PymNow, of course, it seems impossible that I ever had not heard of her, that I could have knelt down to the shelf to run my fingertips across the row of William-Morris-ish-covered hardbacks without a certain fondness. I don’t recall if I started to read Quartet immediately, but I do recall that, when I had started (and had, very shortly thereafter, finished), I knew that I would be (and, indeed, was) revisiting that shelf often. The next one I chose was No Fond Return of Love (seduced by the first sentence) but after that I descended into what I affectionately recall as the Great Pym-Blur. Yum.

***

Short biographies are available at The Barbara Pym Official Home Page and The Barbara Pym Society of North America. And a list of some full-length biographies, scholarly studies and articles appears here .

The following quotations are taken from Barbara Pym’s A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym (NY: E.P. Dutton Inc, 1984), which, if you’ve enjoyed this author’s fiction, is a must-read.

27 August 1933
I was reading the diaries I kept when I was 15 and 18, and profoundly depressed by them – I’m glad time goes on.

26 January 1934
I went out to the Bodleian in my little grey suit with a red hankie knotted round my neck. I sat reading – Chaucer and the Roman poets – when Lorenzo came and sat down beside me. I did not speak to him but we smiled at each other. I found it difficult to work.

14 August 1936
Last Monday I had a letter from Jonathan Cape – saying that he was interested in my novel Some Tame Gazelle and thought he might be able to offer to publish it if I would make some alterations. They are quite minor ones – so I hope I shall soon be able to send it off again. And then – I dare not hope too much, but it would be marvellous if he took it.

19-21 April 1940
How differently one behaves now though on a melancholy evening! Instead of the abandonment of tears and the luxury of a good cry one thinks philosophically about what is the best thing to do – to smoke, get ready for bed, read a nice light novel and then sleep a long sleep. It is always better in the morning.

16 October 1943
A very melancholy day, but in some ways a satisfying one. Because I’ve really faced up to the fact that Gordon doesn’t really love me as I love him and will never ask me to marry him when he is free.

28 October 1955
Perhaps to be loved is the most cosy thing in life and yet many people, women I suppose I mean, know only the uncertainties of loving, which is only sometimes cosy when one accepts one’s situation (rarely perhaps).

Very Private Eye Pym29 April 1958
A Glass of Blessings
published on 14April. Only 3 reviews up to 29April, none wholly good. My humour deserts me when I am dealing with romance, I am tone-deaf to dialogue, am moderately amusing. Reviewers all women. Young?

24 March 1963
To receive a bitter blow on an early Spring evening (such as that Cape don’t want to publish An Unsuitable Attachment – but it might be that someone doesn’t love you anymore) – is it worse than on an Autumn or Winter evening?

26 September 1966
After the dentist went to the Wimpole Buttery. A delicious creamy cake tasting of walnuts. Now Skipperless one begins to understand ‘compensatory eating’. Better surely now to write the kind of novel that tells of one day in the life of such a woman.

31 August 1970
It seems unnatural not to be writing bits for novels in one’s notebook. What sort of novel could I write now?

19 June 1972
The position of the unmarried woman – unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction. The beginning of a novel?

28 June 1975
When I wrote Some Tame Gazelle I didn’t know nearly as much about village life as I do now.

28 October 1977
James had rung to say that Quartet is on the Booker shortlist. Caroline Blackwood, Paul Bailey, Jennifer Johnston, Penelope Lively, BP and Paul Scott.

18 May 1979
Summer at last! (What one has stayed alive for?!)

***

Quartet Autumn PymThe Barbara Pym Walking Tour is available for download.

The following quotations, written in places that had an impact on the author, are taken from Barbara Pym’s A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters , edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. (NY: E.P. Dutton Inc, 1984).

London.
I think we may get a little flat in the autumn as it would really be more convenient than rooms. We can’t cook anything here and there isn’t much space to put things. But we are very happy and the people in the house are nice and we are near Marble Arch and Hyde Park and Oxford Street (and the Edgware Road which is not a very nice district for two young women to wander about in late at night). (Letter, 11 May 1939)

Naples.
From the ship layers of orange and pink and biscuit coloured buildings and in the evening a mass of twinkling lights. No smells for the first week as I had a cold, but afterwards many smells and dirty bits of paper in the streets – and occasionally a good smell, incense or perfume passing a barber’s shop. The people, rather ragged and dirty but some girls nicely dressed and pretty, nearly all wearing shoes with very high wedge heels – many priests. (Journals 1944)

Lisbon, Hotel Metropole.
Near the Moorish style railway station. Dark little room looking into a well. I can see them washing up at 11 o’clock at night. The lower part of the walls covered with striped canvas like luggage (it’s like living in a suitcase), the dim light and the grey iron bedstead like a French film. Setting for a Graham Greene novel. (1954 Journals)

Greece.
Heard cuckoo in Delphi. Sensational ride to Lamia through the mountains – pass of Thermopylae. As we get down into the straight road to Lamia after the slow grinding climbs and descents, the driver (who looks like a younger, benevolent Stalin) sounds his horn in triumphant paeans and the radio is blaring full blast. Lamia. Plastic doves are being sold in the square and on the back corner of the Hotel Achillia there is a stork’s or pelican’s nest with young. The conductor on the bus sniffs a red carnation, two elderly men sit at a table with a gardenia between them. (1966 Journals)

***

A bibliography of Barbara Pym’s books is here and Hazel Bell’s Index of Barbara Pym’s writings is here.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

No Fond Return PymOnce, she knew, she had been different, and perhaps after all the years had left her with a little of that difference. Perhaps she was still an original shining like a comet, mingling no water with her wine. But only very occasionally, mostly she was just like everyone else, rather less efficient, if anything.
Some Tame Gazelle

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 than one might really say that there is no hope for her.
Excellent Women

One’s married friends were too apt to assume that one had absolutely nothing to do when not at the office. A flat with no husband didn’t seem to count as a home.
Jane and Prudence

‘I’m not one of those excellent women, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid,’ she thought, ‘but how useful it would be if I were!’
Less than Angels

I suppose that by the time one is seventy one can say confidently and from personal experience that things will pass. At thirty one is still living experimentally, guessing that they will yet almost hoping that they will not.
A Glass of Blessings

I am unlovable, she thought, and unfriendly. When some nice well-meaning woman comes up to me my instinct is to shrink away.
No Fond Return of Love

He had a few days leave still in hand. ‘You never know when they might come in useful,’ he said, but he felt that those extra days would never be needed, but would accumulate like a pile of dead leaves drifting on to the pavement in autumn.
Quartet in Autumn

There was nobody else looking over it except for a middle-aged woman wearing a mackintosh pixie hood and transparent rainboots over her shoes. She was carrying a shopping bag full of books, on top of which lay the brightly coloured packet of a frozen ‘dinner for one’.
The Sweet Dove Died

Less than Angels PymTom did not care for his sister’s friend very much, though he respected her as a librarian, even if her interest in local history appeared a little excessive at times and there was something forced and unnatural about her frequent references to the sites of deserted medieval villages and the appearance of ridge and furrow in the landscape. Could any normal woman be quite so interested?
A Few Green Leaves

The afternoon’s shopping had been arranged to console her sister Penelope, who at twenty-five was still young enough to suffer disappointments in love as commonly as colds or headaches.
An Unsuitable Attachment

Young men of twenty-one didn’t usually think about being husbands. They wanted a fine romantic love to fill the time when they were not busy with more important things, like making speeches or writing clever political pamphlets. But women, poor things, wanted more than that.
Crampton Hodnet

Carefully, cautiously, with a cool eye and as much detachment as I could muster, I peeped at myself and Alan, as it were lifting the corner of a curtain or peering through a chink in a lighted window. I saw two people, together yet apart, not exactly incompatible, and I wondered if it was my fault.
An Academic Question

Adam looked puzzled. Cassandra had been harping so much on love during the last few weeks. It was surely unnecessary in a woman who had been happily married for five years, he thought.
Civil to Strangers

***

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