The Pleasures of Poverty

Barbara Everett

  • 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, ISBN 0 333 34995 4

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 But in 1963 her publisher, Cape, turned down her new novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, and she stayed unpublished until 1977.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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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