Town & Country (UK)
WIT & WISDOM
Marie-claire Chappet explores the legacy of an lesser-known literary gem
LORD DAVID CECIL AND PHILIP LARKIN NOMINATEDHER AS THE MOST UNDERRATED WRITER OF THE CENTURY
‘Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?’ asked Barbara Pym in her 1952 novel Excellent Women. It was an astute, comic observation typical of its author, a woman who remained relatively uncelebrated for most of her career.
She began writing in the 1930s, and her first book Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950. But it was not until 1977, when both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin nominated her as the most underrated writer of the century, that she found wider acclaim. Interest in her work duly soared, and her novel Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that same year, but even so, her early novels only found a public audience after her death in 1980.
In 2021, another intervention is being staged on behalf of this extraordinary English writer. April will see the release of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, the definitive biography by Paula Byrne, who shines a thoughtful light on the author’s thwarted career. Byrne takes the reader through Pym’s tales, which are akin to Jane Austen’s: wry social comedies of rural village life, vicars and unrequited love, which amuse, move and gently mock. Yet Pym also drew from personal experiences; her work at the International Africa Institute in London prompted her to include anthropologists in most of her novels, while her writing often focused on the platonic and nuanced affections forged between unmarried women, reflecting her own experience of living with her sister Hilary.
Through private diary entries and letters, Byrne’s book evokes Pym’s quick wit and warmth, her love affairs and lifelong friendships. Perhaps more importantly, it is an affectionate testament that may introduce the novelist to a whole new audience. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one,’ she once wrote; what a shame we can never read what she would have made of the pandemic. ‘The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym’ by Paula Byrne (£25, Harper Collins) is published on 29 April.