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 In a 1978 broadcast printed in the latest collection of her previously unpublished work, she looks back over more than forty years spent trying to write novels – a career with, as she laconically puts it, ‘many ups and downs’.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.

Ought it to do so? A strong case could hardly be made on the basis of Civil to Strangers, which Barbara Pym herself did not attempt to publish. Perhaps she felt that it was too close to Some Tame Gazelle both in manner and material; perhaps the circumstances in which she wrote it seemed, after the war, too distant; and it may be that it was too closely attached to her private feelings anyway. As many of her critics remark, Barbara Pym’s fiction characteristically takes off from some autobiographical reality: the unexpectedly high incidence of anthropologists, for instance, is to be explained by her years working at the International African Institute, just as the community portrayed in her last novel, A Few Green Leaves, has clear affinities with Finstock, the village near Oxford to which she retired. On the central question of the interaction between her artistic and her emotional life we shall have to wait for Hazel Holt’s biography for authoritative evidence, but the main outlines seem clear from the diaries and letters already available.

The early novels reflect Barbara Pym’s love for Henry Harvey, whom she met at Oxford; her alternately anguished and wry but unrewarded pursuit of him is affectingly revealed in the pre-war section of A Very Private Life, and it is touching to find that he visited her in hospital in Oxford three days before she died. Some Tame Gazelle is to some extent a roman à clef which projects Pym’s Oxford friends, as well as her sister, into a fantasised middle age. As Charles Burkhart observes, it is a novel in which ‘every character is a “character”,’ though to call it ‘hilarious’ as he does is perhaps to be too easily amused. Archdeacon Hoccleve (the name reminds us that the Oxford English School left a profound impression on Barbara Pym) has been tranquilly adored by the heroine Belinda for many years despite his indifference and inaccessibility; this causes her faint tremors from time to time, but the little events of village life offer many consolations. In ‘Gervase and Flora’, the fragmentary novel included with Civil to Strangers, Flora follows her love to Finland, but he marries a local girl (as Henry Harvey did). Flora cannot imagine not being in love with Gervase any more than she can imagine his returning her love. ‘The first two years were the worst, she reflected calmly ... it was really no use entering upon an unrequited passion unless you were prepared to keep it up for at least five years. Seven years was best.’ The light tone, like the comedy, has its charm, but also has its function, as charm does. One can’t read the letters of the period without feeling how close Pym’s persiflage is to the pain it both expresses and controls, even though she does not seem as badly hurt as she was by the subsequent break-up of her wartime affair with the radio writer Gordon Glover. Robert Liddell, in his contribution to Dale Salwak’s volume, objects to too tragic a view of ‘Barbara’s hobby (generally enjoyable) of “unrequited love” ’, and as a friend of hers since 1932 his view has to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, Barbara Pym’s professional exploitation of her intimate feelings prompts many questions about the exact tone and fictive re-alignment of the autobiographical elements in her work which critics have so far been reluctant to raise or consider with the appropriate finesse.

The heroine of Civil to Strangers is Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon (Barbara Pym addressed herself as ‘Sandra’ in her Oxford diaries) and she is married to a vain, hypochondriac but (to her) lovable novelist called Adam. Pym wrote to Henry Harvey at the time that ‘Adam is sweet but very stupid. You are sweet too, but not as consistently stupid as Adam.’ As in Some Tame Gazelle, there is a sense of the private joke (Adam takes himself off at one point to the Bodleian, scene of many meetings between Pym and Harvey, as her diaries reveal). Adam’s ineffable self-centredness recalls Archdeacon Hoccleve’s, and provides some mild comedy which would easily translate into a form of affectionate teasing. Cassandra is so worshippingly submissive that she can hardly be seen as the vehicle of violent disappointment. She gets what she wants in the end anyway, which is Adam spurred on to something approaching ardour by the attentions of Cassandra’s foreign lover, as well as the ultimate prospect of a little Adam. Still, the novel’s tolerance of her husband is greater than the outside reader might feel to be justified, even in such an indulgent environment. Nor are the remaining characters vintage Pym: there is a lonely middle-aged couple who do the sensible thing and marry, a village vamp, and an absurd Hungarian called Mr Tilos. As the author remarks, ‘foreigners are rare in Shropshire, particularly Hungarians,’ and it is of course 1938. But Mr Tilos is so thin a character that he seems more like a refugee from The Young Visiters, or Toytown, than Budapest. The grown-up writer has to be faux-naive, and in Pym’s prewar work the simplicity doesn’t always have the necessary knowingness behind it – as it does, for instance, in Stevie Smith, whom Barbara Pym admired. (Charles Burkhart points out that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s influence sometimes seems to put more bite into Pym’s prose.)

But whatever personal significance and therapeutic value Civil to Strangers may have had for the author, it was also an attempt to write what she refers to as her kind of novel – a kind which received convincing definition with Excellent Woman (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958). Beside their sureness, and lightness, of touch, the other fragments accompanying Civil to Strangers look fumbling and will be of interest to enthusiasts only. ‘Home Front Novel’ records some period detail about the impact of evacuees on village life, and extracts from a spy novel, ‘So Very Secret’, are written with conventional breathlessness (‘The next thing I knew ... ’, ‘I held my breath ... ’ etc) which forfeits Barbara Pym’s greatest strength – economy. Oddly enough, however, the short story did not suit her. Of the four printed here, only the last – ‘Across A Crowded Room’, written for the New Yorker – makes any impression.

The failure with this form is suggestive. Barbara Pym loved detail but was not often able to bring to the trivia of ordinary life the transformative attention that the short story feeds on. One’s own clutter is consoling, and the bits and pieces on which Pym’s characters depend as they go about their common rounds and daily tasks provide an arbitrary cosiness that, as she herself saw, was a danger. The use of objects in The sweet dove died and even more in Quartet in Autumn, both late works, is strikingly more intense. Lavinia, in the former, is psychologically over-reliant on the decor of her elegant flat; Marcia’s formidable collection of milk bottles, in the latter, is a clear index of her growing battiness. The progression illustrates Barbara Pym’s saving refusal, as a writer, to let herself be too comfortable.

The facts of Barbara Pym’s literary life are recapitulated by several contributors to Dale Salwak’s volume, but common ground on the question of her development doesn’t really emerge. Indeed, Philip Larkin, writing in 1977 before the last three novels appeared, argued that her work ‘exhibited no “development” ’. The possibility that the involuntary and distressing gap in her publishing career might have had artistically valuable effects is not much considered. Generally, individual novels are preferred or not on idiosyncratic bases. John Halperin, for instance, offers Jane and Prudence as ‘arguably Pym’s best novel’ because it illustrates most powerfully his theme: her treatment of the war between the sexes. It ‘depicts women as the victims of men, of their selfishness and brutality’. Mary Strauss-Noll, however, thinks that the novel is ambivalent about marriage ‘in a humorous fashion’, and quotes Barbara Pym’s own remark that some of her best friends were men. The difficulty with both views is that they ignore the extreme flimsiness, as imagined persons, of the chauvinists in question. Fabian Driver, the object of some sharp female rivalry in Jane and Prudence, is no advance on Hoccleve or Adam as a persuasive masculine force: his insensitivity matters less than his insubstantiality; as a village Lothario you could say that he is wittily exposed, except that there’s so little to expose. Only in her last novels did Pym begin to achieve credibility in this respect.

Whether they prefer to admire the decorous vivacity of Barbara Pym’s comedy or are drawn by the more desolate inferences suggested by some of her books, her critics constantly talk of her ‘world’, as in Janice Rossen’s sometimes pedestrian but often thoughtful study, or in Charles Burkhart’s usefully introductory primer. The relationship between it and the real world sometimes seems tenuous and is prized for being so. The novels are remarkably free from conceptual content or courted implication – a project called, say, ‘Barbara Pym and the War of Ideas’ would hardly seem feasible, despite the connections that have been made between her and Jane Austen (a comparison Pym herself rightly deprecated). But although there is no wish whatever to chronicle the time in a responsible way, the novels somehow smuggle through details that only a bright social curiosity would have noticed. Those years spent working with the anthropologists left their mark: the heroine of Pym’s last novel actually is one, and there is general agreement that A Few Green Leaves catches a recognisably Pymian village at a verifiable moment of historical transition. It’s significant, however, that the heroine abandons her fieldwork, realising that she ‘could write a novel’ instead.

The question of ‘Where, exactly, is the Pym world?’ gives John Bayley his title, in the most suggestive of the essays in the Salwak book – a collection which mixes with the true fan’s lack of discrimination a wide range of pieces, from the informatively documentary to the frankly gushing, and shows some bumpy juxtapositions of American earnestness and English complacency. Bayley sees that criticism can’t be carried on simply by asserting that Barbara Pym is beyond it, even though for the devotee she may be. He characteristically warms to the novels’ lack of formal pretension, their ‘unconscious selfhood’, the way the author appears to give herself up to the medium rather than try to do something significant with it. She assumes rather than systematises a duality in experience, whereby romance and loneliness seamlessly co-exist with eating, drinking and dressing. But if the appeal is said to lie in the indefinableness of the Pym world, the way it spills over into our ordinary consciousness as if it was part of our world and not some ludic display foisted on us by a virtuoso author, by the same token it becomes dangerously easy for the besotted reader to bail the author out. When she runs out of something we may simply supply it from our own store without realising. It is a problem with Barbara Pym sometimes to know how much is really there. With her love of the trivial goes a minimalism or at least a kind of modesty that can rely too much on our good will. John Bayley connects Pym’s simplicity and directness with that of her friend and champion Philip Larkin, but something kept her back from the rhetorical sonorities Larkin sometimes went in for. Despite his advocacy on her behalf, Larkin was prepared to be locally critical of Pym’s work, as his introduction to An Unsuitable Attachment, reprinted in Salwak’s book, shows.

What now seems to be needed is a less generalised enthusiasm about the Pym world, less readiness to take it as a unitary experience or package deal, and a more stringent attempt to say why some of the novels are better than others. Janice Rossen tries to make a start in this direction, but does to with too apologetic an air. One question which might be more discussed is: was it a good thing for Barbara Pym to have been so ‘splendid’? Being splendid is expected of the excellent women she specialises in – women who don’t make a fuss even though condemned to distant adoration, who act as unpaid secretaries and assistants, who keep the parish ticking over, who contrive to be content with their attenuated opportunities. Even though they spend much of their lives ministering to men’s convenience with little reward, they don’t hold it against them.

The Pym heroine often has to come to terms with the fact that the man she wants doesn’t want her in the way she wants to be wanted. All she can do, she feels, is to be brave and even apologetic about it, but that means learning something of what Barbara Pym called in her diaries ‘the technique of misery’. One strategy is to make fun of oneself for being in such an absurd situation: in her Thirties letters to Henry Harvey, the young Barbara often presents ‘Miss Pym’ as laughably spinsterish, and it’s easy to see how this mode leads naturally – and also defensively – to the comedy of the early novels. The cost of feeling rejected is movingly indicated by some entries in her 1942 diary, written after Gordon Glover had gone away: ‘So I went round in miserable circles – to know what one wants and see no prospects of getting it – what pain, sometimes I feel I must talk about it, and let go for a minute ... then I can start again being drearily splendid.’ Ten days later she records that she and Honor Wyatt (then in the process of getting divorced from Glover) ‘decided that the burden and continual strain of being “splendid” was sometimes unbearable – sometimes something snaps’.

The majority of Barbara Pym’s novels ostensibly avert their gaze from such demoralising realities and, as comedies, they are entitled to do so. Nevertheless, she wrote best when she addressed – in however oblique a way – the sense of being wounded by love or by life that her diaries intermittently record. In The sweet dove died the unrequited love of the middle-aged heroine (who really is middle-aged now, not playing at being so as in Some Tame Gazelle) is fully accounted for by the unsparing but pitying rendering of her own unlovable egotism. Larkin complained that parts of An Unsuitable Attachment were ‘not fully “done”, as Henry James would say’, but technically The sweet dove died is thoroughly Jamesian. The control of point of view and the elimination of the superfluous is even more impressive in Quartet in Autumn, the novel about retirement that Barbara Pym wrote after her own. There is a ruthlessness in it which reflects the novelist’s absolute command of her material. Some critics object that its comedy has become atypically grim. Nevertheless, both these novels and A Few Green Leaves not only show Barbara Pym’s tenacity as a writer in the face of discouragement, but also her ambitiousness as an artist in trying to make her kind of novel yield more than it had previously done without forfeiting its characteristic qualities. No one should be expected to be ‘splendid’ all the time: Barbara Pym most justifies the attention she is now receiving when her buoyancy and her vulnerability are deliberately held in equipoise.