Miss Pym and a Friend

Miss Pym and a Friend

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pym's 100th

Well, I wouldn't have called her a spinster, but read below: A note in Barbara Pym's diary instructs: "Read some of Jane Austen's last chapters and find out how she manages all the loose ends." Next entry, a fairly typical one: "The Riviera Cafe, St. Austell is decorated in shades of chocolate brown. Very tasteless, as are the cakes." This was written in 1952. She was 38, had published two novels, Some Tame Gazelle and the resplendent Excellent Women, and was at work on the next. It had taken 15 years of dutiful revising and circulating it around for Some Tame Gazelle to find a publisher. During the rewrites she had tried to heed her agent's advice to "be more wicked, if necessary." This Sunday, June 2, marks the centenary of Barbara Pym's birth: If you aren't lucky enough to be with the Barbara Pym Society in Oxford, you could make something from her cookbook (downloadable!) or just read one of her novels with champagne, tea or your hot milky drink of choice. For new Pym readers: I'd start with either Excellent Women or No Fond Return Of Love. Other nice starting points: A Glass of Blessings, Less Than Angels, and The Sweet Dove Died. Do not start with Crampton Hodnet. During her 20s, she'd completed several other books, including a Finnish novel (she'd never been to Finland) and a spy novel written during WWII, which was very good except for the actual spy parts (she had never met a spy). During the war she'd been placed in the Censorship Department, then joined the Wrens; she now lived in London with her younger sister Hilary. She didn't expect to make a living off her writing. She worked at the International African Institute in the editorial department, managing its journal and ushering various "dusty academic" anthropological monographs and studies through publication. Only a handful of the anthropologists she worked with knew or appreciated that the woman overseeing their indexes and edits was one of Britain's great comic novelists. Many an acknowledgement went: "I am grateful to Miss Barbara Pym for the considerable work involved in preparing the final version of the text for the printer." This is all so worthy, so stealth, so Pymian! Hazel Holt, her friend (and later biographer and literary executor), shared an office with her at the Institute. In her life of Pym, she describes their conjectures about the home lives and backstories of their Institute colleagues, the Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time quizzes they'd give each other in the long afternoons, how Pym would repurpose old galleys as stationery for typing her novels. Once an anthropologist, visiting their office, told them that years before he'd been to a party Virginia Woolf had given. The two leapt on this: glamorous brilliant Bloomsbury, what had the party been like? "But, alas, all he could remember was that the refreshment had consisted only of buns and cocoa." This, too, seems very Pymian. Another Pym thing is always to be a little in need of a revival. One critic-friend, attempting to spark interest in her novels after they'd gone out of fashion in the early 70s, recommended them as "books for a bad day." And they are, it's true. They're comforting and deeply funny. Try to describe them, though, and they go all muzzy: curates and jumble sales, tea urns and "distressed gentlewomen." (You can make Wodehouse sound similar with this sort of inventorying: country houses and cow creamers, prize pigs and school prizes.) Their human values—modesty, compassion, generosity, stoicism—are quiet. Worse, they're so beautifully crafted, so stringently revised and edited, they appear deceptively as if they had been easy to write. What's hard to get across is that Pym's novels are, basically, spinster drag novels—the emotions quite genuine and at the same time a send-up, a pose. Love, Melancholy, Poetry, and Death, all the most Romantic Trappings, courtesy of the vaguely nice-looking lady in dowdy shoes at the next table who you didn't notice jotting down everything you said into her little spiral notebook. "Let me… add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person," says Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women. *** Barbara Pym and Henry Harvey "Henry has bought a book about neurosis and is relieved to find that his neurosis differs in kind from psychosis and madness." This happy neurotic news was from a friend of Pym's from her college days in Oxford, the writer and critic Robert Liddell, on a road trip in East Anglia. The "Henry" of the letter was Henry Harvey, exasperating object of Pym's unrequited love in her 20s, temperamental, brilliant marvel of their set of friends. Henry wrote her letters in "Latin, German, French, Swedish, Finnish and the English of James Joyce" that "I could not well understand." Other times he didn't answer her letters at all. He was that guy. They had a lopsided on-off-on relationship at Oxford and, later, a long friendship—the former a source of great pain and anguish to her. When Henry eventually got married, to a girl he'd met in Finland, Liddell sent a note care of Pym's sister so that she could delicately break the news. He typed the address on the envelope so that Barbara wouldn't recognize his handwriting. (Later, delightfully, Liddell got off the great deadpan line: "Surely Henry will wear out more than one wife." And when the foretold divorce eventually came to pass, Liddell wrote to her, "what a relief it is to write irreverently of Henry and how angry he'd be! Like people making fun of the

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