In 1971 the author Barbara Pym was at her day job at the International African Institute when she noticed “Mr C” laboriously attacking his lunchtime sandwich with a knife and fork. Pym made a mental note of the detail before asking herself ruefully, “Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?” Ten years earlier, Jonathan Cape had dumped her after her sixth book on the grounds that her brand of anthropological observation of English social manners was old lady-ish, dull and didn’t sell. As an extra humiliation, no other publishing house had been interested in picking up Miss Pym: books built on “the daily round of trivial things” could hardly compete with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal or, if you were feeling fancy, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jonathan Cape had even published John Lennon (Pym liked the Beatles, but still). Clearly there was no place in contemporary literature for Mr C and his oddly formal way with a sandwich.
There is nothing unusual about major minor novelists having a disappointing and disproportionate decline, followed by a posthumous flowering in reputation and sales. What’s unusual about Pym is that her phoenix moment came while she was still alive. In 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers and critics to nominate their most underappreciated novelist of the past 75 years. Only one person was mentioned twice – by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil – and that was Pym. As a result, Cape said that it would be delighted to publish her future books (too late, she explained: she’d just signed with Macmillan); Roy Plomley wanted her for Desert Island Discs; John Updike couldn’t say enough nice things about her in the New Yorker. Best of all, the Booker prize judges shortlisted her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, her first to appear for 16 years.
In her three remaining years – she died in 1980 at the age of 66 of returning cancer – Pym enjoyed the recognition that had always slightly eluded her. There was gratifying fuss, good champagne and – always a topic dear to her heart – an excuse to buy some smart new clothes. Today she occupies a space in literary culture that is hard to define. In this deeply affectionate biography, Paula Byrne claims her as a “cult author” but that doesn’t seem quite right. Pym is no one’s idea of a well-kept secret. Although she is frequently described, not least by Byrne, as a modern Jane Austen, in fact her work is far closer to Elizabeth Gaskell in her Cranford days. For one thing Pym’s marriage plots reek of ambivalence. People are often already wed at the start of her books and really don’t like it, although, this being Pym-world, they decide to stick with it. Ageing single women spend years yearning for unsuitable men – gay, married, both – before coming to the realisation that they are better off without them. And then there is Pym’s enchantment with the vernacular of domestic life, which seems closer to the ladies of Cranford than those of Pride and Prejudice – a salad parted to reveal a grey caterpillar leering at a picky lunch guest, a bowl of gooseberries, an archdeacon with a hole in his sock. Perhaps it is nearer the mark to say that Barbara Pym is a novelist who goes in and out of fashion. Sometimes we can see her and she can see us so deeply and piercingly that it takes our breath away, and then things go cloudy again for a few years.
In this excellent – a word that always carried extra heft in Pym’s universe – biography Byrne explores how her art emerged from three distinct yet porous registers of experience. First was the life lived, then the life elaborately recorded and embroidered in the dense trove of notebooks and letters, which Pym bequeathed to her beloved Bodleian, and finally life as it is transmuted into her deeply autobiographical novels. Reading closely, Byrne shows how often in her rough drafts Pym would start to write herself into her own novels, replacing the name of her heroine, say “Prudence” or “Mildred”, with “I”. Conversely, in her long story-making letters to friends she frequently referred to herself in the third person – “Miss Pym” or “Pymska” or “Sandra” (despite how it sounds, “Sandra” was the saucy version of her). Some Tame Gazelle, Pym’s first novel, which she began just after she came down from Oxford in 1934 but didn’t publish until 1950, was originally a jokey imagining of her and her sister’s future lives as spinsters – which is exactly how things turned out. It got to the point where friends wondered out loud whether Barbara had an uncanny knack of casting spells on the future.
In the same way, the many men with whom Pym endured tormented love affairs regularly turned up in her novels only lightly disguised. Horribly self-involved Oxford boyfriend Henry Harvey was the model for her holey-socked archdeacon, while Julian Amery, another ambivalent man who led her a merry dance, pops up in Jane and Prudence as the permanently gurning MP Edward Lyall. Meanwhile Robert “Jock” Liddell, gay this time, is a ringer for William Caldicote (yet another low-grade narcissist) in Excellent Women. It was only at her friends’ repeated urging that Pym excised any reference to Friedbert Gluck, her SS boyfriend with whom she had a love affair in Germany before the second world war. Frankly, it is extraordinary that the only time Pym came close to being sued was when Marks & Spencer took offence at the suggestion in Jane and Prudence that women who bought their hats from Debenhams thought they were slumming it if they contemplated buying a dress from Marks. The threatening letter quoted the fact that she had been described as the author of books “worthy of Jane Austen” as the reason for taking umbrage.
Although Pym’s archive has already been well picked over by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate its revelations into a cradle-to-grave biography. She gives a seamless timeline of Pym’s life as a provincial solicitor’s daughter, Oxford undergraduate, wartime Wren and diligent employee of the International African Society. Byrne doesn’t dodge the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathiser (she even had a swastika pin that she wore around Oxford) went on longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but she is clear too how completely it was bound up with Pym’s feelings for prewar Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of communism from Russia. It perhaps says something about Pym’s blind spot on the subject that she had to be badgered by her friend and first reader Jock Liddell into excising Nazis from the typescript of Some Tame Gazelle.
Oddly, though, Byrne does not delve very deeply into the less toxic business of why Pym had such a masochistic habit of going after men who were either gay or already committed to prettier or socially smarter women (she wasn’t plain but there was a Joyce Grenfellish quality to her that landed her permanently in the chum zone). At times this led to behaviour that today would count as stalking. While she started out like any moonstruck Oxford girl undergraduate, walking past the college of her latest crush several times a day in the hope of bumping into him, by middle age this had developed into something more alarming. In 1956 Barbara and her sister Hilary had actually driven to Devon in a bid to find out more about the family background of one of their neighbours in Barnes, a camp church organist to whom they had hardly ever spoken.
Whenever a man “liked” Pym, and they often did, she decided they were boring and ran in the other direction. Perhaps this was because, as Dulcie Mainwaring, the heroine of No Fond Return of Love puts it, “It seemed […] so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or play.” Or, as Pym herself confided to a friend when in her late 40s, “I love Bob, I love Richard, I love Rice Krispies … perhaps it is better in the end just to love Rice Krispies.”
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne is published by William Collins (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.