Miss Pym and a Friend

Miss Pym and a Friend

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Barbara Pym in the Wallstreet Journal!

Greetings from New York --

Barbara made the pages of the Wall Street Journal in the “Dear Book Lover” column (May 2, 2011). Link is at bottom of text, but am not sure it will work. Was so pleased to come across this splendid tribute to our favorite writer. Happy spring!


May 2, 2011

Dear Book Lover: Critically Acclaimed but Almost Forgotten

I was on a business trip in Manhattan, eating alone at a bar and chatting with a nice man in the same boat. He was a middleman for independent booksellers and was attending a convention. We talked books all night, and he asked if I had ever read anything by Barbara Pym. I said I'd never heard of her. He recommended "Excellent Women," which I read, and I was hooked. Can you recommend authors with a similar style?
—D.N., Washington, D.C.
When I purged my bookshelves a few years ago, I kept my six Barbara Pym novels, among them "Excellent Women," a 1978 hardcover. A year earlier, in 1977, two members of the British literati had independently nominated Pym, in a Times Literary Supplement survey, as one of the most underrated novelists of the 20th century. That brought "Excellent Women," first published in 1952, and some of Pym's other novels back to life.
Pym is the kind of writer who, though popular and critically acclaimed in her time, never made it into the literary canon. Many of these excellent but almost forgotten novelists are women whose subject was domestic dramedy. The compactness of their canvas has often been misinterpreted as smallness of imagination. The canon admits only one of this type, and that is Jane Austen.
Pym's heroines are "churchy spinsters," modest, unambitious, sensible women whose horizons end at the borders of their parish. Saul Bellow slighted another example of this genre—Elizabeth Taylor's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont"—saying, "I seem to hear the tinkle of teacups." But Pym's women can be unsentimental—even uncharitable—observers of their patch of humanity, lobbing an occasional grenade of wicked wit. A British reviewer once compared Pym's work to wine, with "more body than you might expect from its lightness."
Other writers like Pym and Taylor are Angela Carter, Molly Keane, Rumer Godden, Angela Thirkell and E.M. Delafield. Virago Modern Classics has republished some of these women's work as well as fiction by scores of other lesser-known writers worthy of a backward glance.
I've just been reading a splendid Virago Modern Classic, "South Riding" by Winifred Holtby, first published in 1936. The heroine is another spinster, a school headmistress who at one dramatic moment reminds herself of Jane Eyre. During the interwar period in which "South Riding" was set, women outnumbered men in Britain by a million and a half. "The spinster was a figure of both fear and ridicule," wrote Marion Shaw, Holtby's biographer, in an introduction to "South Riding." Holtby's spinster, however, is neither churchy nor mousy: "I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I'm going to spin."
"South Riding" reminds me of Anthony Trollope's fiction in its wide-angle lens of a small world—in one Yorkshire county in the early 1930s were young, old, rich, poor, aristocrats and plebes, soldiers, politicians, bounders and drunkards. Trollope was much more prolific than Holtby, who died at the age of 37, but I can't help wondering why her work has come so close to extinction.
Pym and her ilk are often referred to as middle-brow, bobbing between the high and low brows first described by phrenologists. Virginia Woolf called their work "a mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calf's-foot jelly." I don't know about the calf's-foot jelly, but I don't mind the occasional geniality and sentiment. A steady diet of it would probably be pernicious, but as Arnold Bennett ("The Old Wives' Tale"), once said, "It takes all sorts of brows to make a world."
—Send your questions about books and reading to Cynthia Crossen at booklover@wsj.com.


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