Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

18 thoughts on “Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I suspect it was a labour of love for Hazel Holt, a close friend of Pym’s and executor of her literary estate. It’s wonderful to see these glimpses of vintage Pym, even if the works themselves are somewhat short and unfinished. :)

      Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    A wonderful review of one of my very favorite authors–so difficult, IMO, to review unfinished works but you’ve conveyed so well the “flavor” of each unfinished fragment. Plus, the short stories! I love Pym but I’ve avoided the unfinished works and, for some reason, the short stories as well. I’m now rethinking that decision!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re actually really interesting to read, as long as one approaches them in the knowledge that they are not fully finished! I wouldn’t recommend them as entry points for someone new to Pym, but for a seasoned reader such as yourself they’re likely to be a delight!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Lovely post, you’re making me really want to re-read this one. I so loved it. I think Home Front Novel was a highlight for me too. It’s quite some time since I read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would have loved to see a more complete version of Home Front, but sadly it wasn’t to be! We’ll just have to imagine how those tensions between the spinster cousins might have played out. A bit of a dress rehearsal for Some Tame Gazelle, perhaps? I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do decide to revisit it.

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    I think I might feel a bit of sadness in reading the unfinished novels wondering how Barbara Pym would have told them. But at least the short stories are there. I do hope this holiday season is good and busy for the bookshop and that you’re taking care of yourself during it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, we’re very busy, which is great as it’s been such a challenging year. And you’re right about the unfinished novels, especially Home Front – so much potential, if only there had been an opportunity for further development…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    These all sound quite lovely, Jacqui, and make me wish I hadn’t fallen off the Pym wagon when I did. My mistake was reading her books too closely together; perhaps I can dip back in again at some point, as I did love her rather sharp observations and her nailing of character!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. Too much of a good thing and all that! As you say, maybe you could try her again at some point, possibly with Goodbye Balkan Capital as it’s quite short and bittersweet?

      Reply
  5. Liz Dexter

    I really enjoyed reading these the two times that I have (once alongside Ali!) and you give a lovely flavour of them all. So nice to see them talked about. I have a fat paperback edition.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you. I do feel this collection has a somewhat lower profile than many of her other books, so it’s nice to shine a light on it here (so to speak). .

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    As others have said, this volume would be rather bittersweet. How fortunate that her work was “rediscovered” when it was, so that we can all continue to enjoy her. I’ve been borrowing some of her books in audio, and listening to them when/if I have trouble falling asleep…because I know the stories, I just slip in and out of them and it’s rather delightful. (Even though normally that kind of inconsistency, stop and start of it all, missing the bits I’ve slept through, would drive me mad.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a good idea. I often have trouble getting back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night. Listening to something comforting and familiar such as this may well do the trick…

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  8. Caroline

    They sounds very good. Especially the short stories. I’ve read all the Pym novels on my TBR and want to get something else soon. I think I will first read the novels and then move on to this.

    Reply

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