Being splendid

Stephen Wall

  • Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym
    Macmillan, 388 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 333 39128 4
  • The Pleasure of Miss Pym by Charles Burkhart
    Texas, 120 pp, $17.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 292 76496 0
  • The World of Barbara Pym by Janice Rossen
    Macmillan, 193 pp, £27.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 333 42372 0
  • The Life and Work of Barbara Pym edited by Dale Salwak
    Macmillan, 210 pp, £27.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 333 40831 4

After a lonely visit to Poland in 1938, Barbara Pym complained in a letter that ‘I honestly don’t believe I can be happy unless I am writing. It seems to be the only thing I really want to do.’ In a 1978 broadcast printed in the latest collection of her previously unpublished work, she looks back over more than forty years spent trying to write novels – a career with, as she laconically puts it, ‘many ups and downs’. The first was written as a schoolgirl dazzled by Aldous Huxley, the second begun at Oxford but torn up as too autobiographical. Some Tame Gazelle dates from the mid-Thirties, but wasn’t published (in revised form) until 1950. Its successor, Civil to Strangers, is the fourth novel to appear since Barbara Pym’s death in 1980. Hazel Holt, her friend and literary executor, has also added to it parts of three other novels and some short stories. When this hoard from the bottom drawer is put alongside the nine books published during Pym’s lifetime and the autobiographical material assembled by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym in A Very Private Life (1984), the picture that emerges is certainly one of a dedicated and professional writer, even though she was never able to live by her pen. The ‘ups and downs’ include the period between 1961 and 1977 when no one would take her work, and the relative celebrity of her last years. All her books are now in paperback, two critical studies and a collection of essays have recently appeared, and a biography is promised. Transatlantic scholars acknowledge grants enabling them to consult the Pym archive in the Bodleian, and Janice Rossen warns us that ‘dissertations are not far behind.’ There seems a good chance that a cult will harden into canonisation.

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