A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Letters and Diaries 
by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym.
Macmillan, 320 pp., £12.95, July 1984, 0 333 34995 4
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The Barbara Pym story is possibly better-known than any of her novels, widely though these are now read. During the decade after 1950 she brought out half a dozen books, which were well received and found a steady if small reading public. But in 1963 her publisher, Cape, turned down her new novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, and she stayed unpublished until 1977. In that year, two contributors to a Times Literary Supplement survey, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, spoke so highly of her work as to effect a change in this situation. Three more novels by Barbara Pym were published, this time by Macmillan, who finally added to them in 1982 – two years after the writer had herself died – the book originally rejected by Cape. Meanwhile, notice excited by the TLS survey of 1977 created new readers and admirers of Barbara Pym, and her reputation continues to grow; she is the subject of academic theses in America.

There are different ways of interpreting this history. Accidents do happen, and people do ‘fall through the net’ (the phrase used ironically of the dying Marcia in Barbara Pym’s own Quartet in Autumn). Those who are sceptical of this may prefer another kind of explanation, more sociological or even political. It would involve some comment on the adequacy or otherwise of publishers’ readers, and on the principles or otherwise of publishers themselves, and on the reality or otherwise of market demand. A reading public may have as much to do with publicity as with reading. It is perhaps partly in deference to this belief, and to help prevent Barbara Pym’s ‘image’ from being again lost to public view, that her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt, and her sister Hilary Pym, have put together from the writer’s journals and letters what they call an ‘Autobiography’, A Very Private Eye. Its very title suggests a joky apologetic gesture towards what is seen as the problem of being a private writer needing a public reputation.

This interpretation too leaves room for doubts. If Barbara Pym’s misfortunes were simply the product of her lack of public note, her career a kind of fault in the whole public system of communications, they would have come to an end with her ‘rediscovery’. But they didn’t. In fact, even her own too-early death didn’t see an end to them. The obituary in the Times, composed one can only imagine by some loyal friend, filled much of its space with an indignant dismissal of the notion that this dead writer might be said to approach the standard of Jane Austen. When An Unsuitable Attachment, posthumously published, was reviewed in this journal Marilyn Butler devoted her analysis to the thesis that the novelist was not the anti-feminist old-men’s-darling that she pretended to be, but was really, under the influence of modern anthropology, purposively producing ‘Functionalist’ or essentially external accounts of her main subject throughout, the condition of the contemporary Church of England. I find it hard to think that this reading much improves on what it is presumably directed against: sentimental absorption of Barbara Pym’s work into the world of the genteel novelette. Thus Macmillan are now selling her novels in dust-jackets whose blurbs offer the quietly formidable and truthful Jane and Prudence as an ‘engaging world ... in which pale young curates send hearts aflutter’; and the desolating entirely contemporary village of A Few Green Leaves as ‘the picture of life in a town forgotten by time’.

It would be absurd to make Barbara Pym’s ten novels-light, dry and unpretentious as they are-sound obscure or difficult. Their salient qualities can be caught, or at least intimated, in a brief essay. There is really nothing to add, for instance, to the finely economical yet comprehensive five pages on ‘The World of Barbara Pym’ which Philip Larkin devoted to the first six novels published, and reprints in his Required Writing; and there is an equally penetrating and suggestive and even briefer account of these earlier novels in /v02/n04/karl-miller/barbara-pyms-hymn in the London Review of Books. Even such admirable essays as these have, however, one curious limitation. They don’t quite suggest a writer who has such difficulties as met Barbara Pym during her literary career, and even less of course do they explain these difficulties. Conversely, it seems interesting that both her obituarist and the LRB reviewer of the rejected novel give the same impression of going wide of the mark, despite the apparent distance between the presumed sympathy of the first and the open antipathy of the second. Both are perhaps reflecting some real uncertainty presented by their subject, some essential elusiveness and problematical quality. It seems only just to say that if the obituary sounds uncharitable, this may be an effect of a genuine attempt to come to terms with an underlying principle of Barbara Pym’s work, the determined ‘smallness’ of her fictions; and the resulting problem of status is equalled by the problem of kind that meets the brisk unadmiring inquiry of the academic eager to categorise. Both suggest the possibility of a writer less lucidly simple than the best criticism can make her sound.

A great part of the interest of A Very Private Eye is that it supports this impression. The book does this, first, by mere information that extends what we already know of Barbara Pym’s publishing history. From the writing point of view hers was a hard-knock life from beginning to end; not getting published was almost more intrinsic to her career than its opposite. When her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, came out in 1950, Barbara Pym was 37; the ‘Autobiography’ reveals that this first book had then been twice revised and many times rejected since she first wrote it in 1934 and 1935, when she herself was only 21 or 22. Even during the decade after she had achieved publication, problems remained. In a letter written to her close friend Bob Smith (who published the first appreciative essay on her novels) Barbara Pym lightly passes on the information from Cape that ‘8 Americans and 10 Continental publishers saw and “declined” ... Excellent Women and they are still plodding on with [Jane and Prudence]’; and this is in 1954, when she might have been assumed to be well and truly launched. These misfortunes may, again, be wholly externalised; we could say that such publishers as found Barbara Pym’s novels not right for the mood of the Sixties are supported by those publishers who thought them not right, either, for the Fifties, Forties or Thirties; and above all by those publishers outside the British Isles who thought them not right for any decade. But A Very Private Eye gives some suggestion that someone more considerable found Barbara Pym’s work difficult or problematic: and that was the writer herself. Apart from providing information, the ‘Autobiography’ in itself helps to show that, like many true artists and unlike many mere entertainers (though she was both, and both with distinction), she may have found it hard not only to perfect her essential gift but even to articulate it.

In the Preface Hazel Holt tells us that ‘our main purpose has been to give to all who read and enjoy her novels another book by Barbara Pym.’ There are, as Charles Lamb pointed out, books which are not books, biblia abiblia. Certainly A Very Private Eye is a long way from being a substitute for a Barbara Pym novel. Even its second or post-1950 half, where we come at last nearer to hearing something recognisable as the voice of the novelist, if in a very muted form, is all the same decidedly different. The first half is really neither ‘a book’ nor a book by Barbara Pym. Its peculiarities are best considered in the light of the editing of the volume as a whole. A Very Private Eye is very privately, or as one might say badly, edited. There are on page 184 seven printer’s errors, including (in one sentence) ‘Excellent Woman’ and ‘Less than Angles’. More importantly, while the reader is told in the Preface that ‘we have only used just over half the material,’ he is not told whether this applies both to correspondence and to journal entries; and without knowing this it is not always easy to judge the reticently intense relationships developing through some of the letters.

In a way, though, the amateurishness of the editing is not at all incongruous. The reason for this is the particular character of the ‘Autobiography’ as a whole, and more especially of the way in which the writer presents herself in it. Though from time to time in the journals she directly addresses a ‘Reader’ whom she imagines absorbed in the text, there is nothing like an appropriate shaping in the materials, which merely follow a loose chronological sequence. The major events of Barbara Pym’s life were probably the acceptance of her first novel in 1950, the rejection of her seventh in 1963, and her ‘rediscovery’ in 1977. Appropriately, the latter or post-1950 part of the book is in the nature of excerpts from a novelist’s working notebooks, which she kept up even through her long period of enforced silence. Interspersed with these are letters to three friends, pleasant but neither long nor introspective, many indeed as concerned with the fate of her writing as her own essential modesty permitted. The background to this part of her life is London, where she set up house with her sister and took up her first full-time professional employment, helping to edit an anthropological magazine: ill-health, however, forcing her to retire early, at 60, to a small house – again shared with her sister – in an Oxfordshire village, where she died six or seven years later. It is in the earlier or pre-1950 parts of A Very Private Eye that we find ‘Autobiography’ in a perhaps more substantial and revealing sense. Here we meet the 20-year-old Barbara Pym at Oxford in the early Thirties (like many others, she found it hard to leave, and lingered on); then on visits home to Shropshire, briefly to Germany, and – more briefly still – to Poland (she travelled more widely than the novels suggest, and after the war was fairly often in Greece); then from 1939 on, in war-work with the censorship in Bristol, until to escape from an unhappy love-affair she joined the Wrens and spent the rest of the war with them in Italy.

These early journals in particular leave a reader responding somewhat ambiguously to one of the editor’s prefatorial remarks: ‘These diaries will, I believe, come as something of a surprise to those who knew her only in later life. I myself discovered aspects of her character that I had not known of in nearly thirty years of close friendship.’ If the editor didn’t know of these aspects, this just might be because they weren’t there. We don’t, that is to say, really meet ‘Barbara Pym’ in these early journals at all, given that the reader’s Barbara Pym must be the writer of the novels – must be some kind of writer, at least. And it seems doubtful if the author of these early journals can write at all. Indeed, not many readers of these diaries could predict that she ever would be able to, despite the fact that at 20 she ‘Bought a lovely fat book at Blackwell’s to write my novel in’. This work must have turned out to be the first version of Some Tame Gazelle, which was, alone of all her novels (the editors tell us), taken from the life. It tells the story of her great unreciprocated passion for another undergraduate, ‘Henry’, in the form of a long-enduring tenderness felt by a 50-year-old maiden lady for a married and unlovable Archdeacon. The very ability so to rework her own situation suggests a remarkable detachment, humour and originality: all in all, a literary power well outside anything shown in these journals. Perhaps Barbara Pym merely lacked the right egoism to make a good diarist. The first draft of the novel, if published, would throw light on this: but it seems to me probable that it would be very different from the final version.

For A Very Private Eye suggests a good deal about the whole process by which Barbara Pym became a writer, and seems to make it plain that that process couldn’t have been speeded up; the novels appearing after 1950 were genuinely the product of the life. The younger Barbara Pym’s great problem was that of not knowing, in any very clear sense, ‘who she was’: and insofar as she did know who she wanted to be, she didn’t really (despite the ‘fat book’) want to be a writer. When she got to Oxford she promptly re-christened herself ‘Sandra’ (and embroidered the name all over her cushions). Sandra’s literary style is embroidered all over the journal too: its first entry reads: ‘15 January [1932]. A new term in a new year – a golden opportunity to get a peer’s heir – a worthy theological student – or to change entirely! But Oxford really is intoxicating.’ Insofar as the writer of these early journals has any kind of coherent style or voice, she seems a not unlikable, very commonplace, big, bonny, bouncing girl, whose attention is mesmerised by the conventional: her love of the sheerly social sphere of existence making all the more touchingly noticeable her great lack of any appropriate social mastery of utterance. Her dashing derivative manner is hardly more than the function of a permanent hopeful high self-consciousness. But its falsity, though innocent, is unpromising: so much so that there is a curiously strong relief when at moments the Sandra style breaks down, and another voice – though still not the novelist’s – makes itself heard. Invariably this is ‘the true voice of feeling’. Thus, in the late summer of 1936, the young Barbara Pym says in a letter to ‘Henry’, with a kind of ruthless truthful desolation: ‘I don’t believe letters should be written like this, especially from people like me to people like you. It would be better if I could write you a poem.’

It is a part of the later novelist’s admirable naturalness and good sense never to seem to come near to valuing art over life. Consonantly, the younger Barbara Pym wanted only two things: she wanted Love and Marriage. These early journals are largely an account of her frequently unhappy and always fruitless quest for both. There are quite a number of affairs, and a lot of romantic agony: ‘At lunch-time when I was alone, I howled’ – so she writes in March 1943, while trying to recover from the second great love of her life; and, despite all the continual business of ‘being drearily splendid’, life during the preceding decade was often a matter of ‘breaking down for a minute’, and ‘howling’. Through the Thirties and Forties the diarist downrightly hopes for marriage, or at least love (‘no words will describe this wonderful nebulous lover that may one day materialise’). The journals reiterate, painfully and for some years almost obsessively, the wish not to be, nor to be seen as, what she in fact anxiously-too-early sees herself as being: ‘the bewildered English spinster, now rather gaunt and toothy, but with a mild, sweet expression’. This mocking, harping self-characterisation seems to reflect two sides of the writer’s nature. One is a frank response to the socially convenable, a humane and simple wish to do what other people do, to go ‘the way of the world’. The other is a deep source of much more inward idealism.

Often in the earlier journals these opposed feelings come together, when larger issues have failed her, in a fascinated interest in clothes. The still-unpublished novelist, working with the censorship in Bristol and trying to forget an (on her side) painfully intense love-affair, writes: ‘Thursday 15 April [1943]. I went to Woolworth’s in the lunch hour and bought various beauty aids – also looked longingly at ginghams and cherry-red linen in Jolly’s window. Oh, but the sun was shining, and in the afternoon a bird sang so that it could be heard even among the censors.’ Underlying the women’s magazinish simplicities of ‘Wool-worth’s’ and ‘beauty aids’ and ‘ginghams’ and ‘cherry-red linen’ is a simplicity of natural emotion that extends itself in the last sentence towards a hint of transcendental idealism. A new Heaven and a new Earth are hard to come by: but a new dress may be made in an afternoon. At this point Barbara Pym begins to be recognisable as an artist: by the way in which all that is pleasantly unpretentious in her social world fuses with a more personal vision of Love and the English Church. In however muted and reticent a form, such romanticism was the mainspring of her character, and from it comes that inwardness which makes the early journals, with their central ‘pursuit of love’, so frequently touching. At the same time they are often strikingly inarticulate.

While she was still an undergraduate, Barbara Pym went to Stratford to see Romeo and Juliet, and ‘it was all terribly tragic – both Romeo and Juliet were intensely passionate, especially Romeo.’ For ten years after this, the journals are the record of an ‘intensely passionate’ and perhaps even slightly tragic young woman. And yet they hardly communicate much of it directly, just as the diarist presumably responded to but can say little about Shakespeare’s young lovers. Romanticism both powers and silences her. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, when – sometime around 1950, where the section called by the editors ‘The Novelist’ begins (the journals are thin for half a dozen years before) – a page is turned and the new working-notebook is recognisable as true Barbara Pym. Thirty years later, the last sentence of her last novel, A Few Green Leaves, would leave its heroine reflecting in understatement and in the conditional tense, envisaging not only the writing of a novel but the possibility of ‘a love affair which need not necessarily be an unhappy one’. And this off-hand, off-key obliquity in speaking of serious matters, especially matters of feeling, is here for the first time intrinsic to the novelist’s style. In the second half of the journals it is this note of impassive and ironic observation that replaces the earlier clamorous but ineffective appeal. Above all, the new voice is a style of self-containment.

In 1935 Barbara Pym had written in her diary: ‘I often think Henry is never so nice as when he’s standing at the door of his flat saying good-bye.’ ‘Saying good-bye’ is of course in itself a pure and classic Romantic experience (in Keats it is Joy himself who has his hand ever at his lips). The individual quality of Barbara Pym’s writing in the novels is to seem perpetually caught in a kind of smiling farewell to romanticism itself. The later phase of the journals occasionally permits a reader to see how thoroughly her idealism has been transformed by that dry clarity of mind that haunts her fiction – what she calls, in a letter to Philip Larkin later again, ‘a novelist’s cruelly dispassionate eye’. The continued solitariness of her life, despite her work, her social instincts, and her capacity for strong emotion, has given her a habit of independence; it has also left her free to take stock of and to analyse the powerful romantic imagination which has formed the inner history of her first thirty years. Certainly the later diaries, like the painful and dark novels published late in her career, have a clear understanding of the degree to which intense romantic feeling may be as much a creation of the self as a recognition of the other: as solitary in reality as it is in wish social.

In March 1962 (before the rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment, and before she had met the much younger and presumably homosexual ‘Richard’ who was her last love, and who pained her so much by withdrawing), she describes in her journal how she had bought a damaged little china bowl with a lemon and leaves painted inside it; and liked it so much as to wonder ‘if I am getting to the stage when objects could please more than people’. She follows this with a bleak project for a story: ‘A woman living in the country who has had a hopeless love for a man (wife still living perhaps or religious scruples), then, when he is free she finds that after all he means nothing to her – is this the reward of virtue, this nothingness?’ The word ‘nothing’ comes to have a certain potency in Barbara Pym’s later journals. In September 1964, when she was happiest with ‘Richard’, an idea for her novel The sweet dove died came to her as: ‘She (Leonora) thinks perhaps this is the kind of love I’ve always wanted because absolutely nothing can be done about it.’ Then, after the break, she writes in February 1967 to her friend Bob Smith about her ‘total “failure” (if that’s the word) with Richard. Trying to understand people and leaving them alone and being “unselfish” and all that jazz has only the bleakest of rewards – precisely nothing!’

An Unsuitable Attachment is a novel difficult to think about clearly without knowing just how much of it survives from its first pre-1963 version. The other three late novels, The sweet dove died, Quartet in Autumn and A Few Green Leaves, are all very fine achievements: but they have, despite some surviving humour and tenderness, a considerable darkness within them. It would be natural to see that darkness as at least in part the result of Barbara Pym’s hard fortunes in her publishing career, cheerfully and stoically as they were borne. The journals show how much her romanticism, her sense of life as a place of ideals, came as youth left her to depend on her pride in literary creativity, and this was taken from her. So much seems clearly true. But nothing in Barbara Pym’s work appears simply the effect of accident. The darkness of the last novels has in fact its own continuity with what is romantic, what is golden, in the first and happier comedies.

At the end of Less than Angels, there is a scene in which the sad and tough women’s-magazine-writing Catherine helps the failed anthropologist Alaric to burn a professional lifetime’s notes on the bonfire in his back garden one Guy Fawkes night. Later, watching them from an upstairs window next-door, two kindly middle-aged female neighbours reflect: ‘But oh dear ... if ever Catherine and Alaric should marry, what a difficult and peculiar couple they would make!’ The romanticism of these early novels works just because they have respect for the ‘difficult and peculiar’; they leave room for it, as in the insistent conditional tenses of that closing sentence. Even the very first novel, the pastoral Some Tame Gazelle, is fully aware that pastoral is made for satire as much as for love; its English village has the formality (and surely had even in 1935) of something nostalgic, out-of-date, like its enchanted old-maid heroines; and even the title evokes an Elysium both tender and silly, both elegant and idiotic (as are the clergy cast as the story’s love-objects, when they are not something worse). Its first paragraph has the heroine Belinda gazing thoughtfully at the long underwear left carelessly glimpsable on the curate beloved of her sister: ‘Of course he might think it none of their business, as indeed it was not, but Belinda doubted whether he thought at all, if one were to judge by the quality of his first sermon.’ Barbara Pym is always capable of a peculiarly comic because peculiarly hard but sideways kick – of an attack whose grace is its thorough inconsequentiality.

I mentioned earlier the anxiety expressed by the writer of Barbara Pym’s obituary concerning any comparison with Jane Austen. It is true that the two artists are probably not much alike (though mere difference of scale does not forbid the comparison, since scale matters less with artists than their having achieved what is in their power to achieve). A better comparison, however, might be with a still greater writer, the creator of Don Quixote: for Barbara Pym’s novels are surely in the same way romantic anti-romances. An entry in her journal during 1943 shows her taking interested notice of the English Quixotic tradition. Friends one day lent her Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which she found (though she never read it through, and was honest enough to say so) ‘a nice, inconsequential sort of book – the sort of book one would like to have written – or might even one day write’. In her novels Barbara Pym does aim at and achieve the beautifully ‘inconsequential’ in a number of different ways: lack of self-importance, a surprising gaiety and even a kind of mystery. But most of all her books possess ‘inconsequentiality’ in that aspect of them which caused most trouble in the market, and which she often refers to unhappily and anxiously in these diaries as her novels’ ‘mildness’.

Negatively, this is their reticence about sex and violence: but in more positive terms it is a question of her liking and seeing the necessity for a certain kind of smallness and randomness and unromantic ordinariness. All these are things which, perhaps, she came to prize in her own life as a larger ‘Romance’ ebbed from her, but which came in their turn to carry a kind of residue of ideality within themselves. A journal entry for May 1935, celebrates one of the rather rare occasions when ‘Henry’, feeling kind, took her out for the day on a jaunt: ‘I meditated on how strange and wonderful it was to be in a train with Henry ... I suppose this is inevitable, as the most ordinary things done with someone one loves are full of new significance that they never have otherwise.’ It is this ‘new significance’ which got into Barbara Pym’s books twenty years after the journal entry, and in them makes things of an unromantic ordinariness seem perhaps not so ordinary or so unromantic after all. Always these are what Charles Lamb called ‘the Pleasures of Poverty’, perceptions around which lingers a certain tough irony or scepticism. Thus, for instance, in Jane and Prudence, an unhappy rather cross middle-aged office-worker on the very fringes of the action happens to use a card-catalogue, and suddenly (brilliantly) turns into a comic artist rather like Barbara Pym herself: ‘Miss Clothier drew a small card-index towards her and began moving the cards here and there with her fingers, as if she were coaxing music from some delicate instrument.’

Once one starts in this way to remember instances of Barbara Pym’s ironic romanticism from the novels, there is (to use one of her own favourite phrases) ‘such richness’ as to make choice difficult. I want to mention one thing only which seems to me to indicate how much these wholly unpretentious fictions are at the same time something like an original prose poésie de départs (‘I often think Henry is never so nice as when he’s standing at the door of the flat saying good-bye’). Only two of her novels, the first and the last, are in their very different ways ‘pastoral’ in the sense of being set in villages. The others all take place chiefly in London and its suburbs – those least ‘romantic’ of all localities. It is curious how little evocative A Very Private Eye is in its sense of time and place – how rarely Barbara Pym gives any glimpse, for instance, of Pimlico, Barnes and Queens Park, the London suburbs where the writer and her sister lived for most of her writing life. It is the novels, Less than Angels and No Fond Return of Love in particular, which create quite extraordinarily the precise ‘feel’, in depth, of a summer or autumn evening in a south-west London suburb, at least as it was twenty or thirty years ago. This haunting intensity is not merely topographical. It derives from the way in which the quiet self-respecting ‘inconsequentiality’ of a London suburb has become an image of the possible truth and happiness that can be found within such a place. The mere contingency of the suburban renders up its rich possibilities: these tree-lined streets and stolid houses have fascinating, even mysterious lives opening out behind them – though lives subject to the same dark laws of morality and mortality that (in Quartet in Autumn) govern the fate of Marcia, Barbara Pym’s most grotesque and ‘romantic’ character, dying alone in her suburban house.

As an artist of the suburban Barbara Pym was not, in fact, alone; she may even be seen as the last in a recognisable English literary tradition. John Keats was the first great English poet to grow up in the London suburbs, and – aided by Leigh Hunt – to allow his work to speak for his true milieu. Browning’s aesthetic eccentricity might well be called suburbanity, the decision to keep his independence by avoiding a classic centre. And more recently, others besides Larkin and Amis have created an alternative to Modernism by returning to the parochial, the provincial and the suburban in tone and ethos. Barbara Pym’s ‘private’ eye was a style that caught the realities of her social world with an intensity equivalent to that of poetry.

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