The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

37 thoughts on “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s hilarious. The sort of thing that might have prompted a letter to The Daily Telegraph…

      It reminds me of something I heard about when I was working with The Wine Society ten or so years ago. A member — possibly a mature chap with a an eye for detail — had written to the Society to point out that the illustration of the fish on the label of their White Burgundy (the best selling white wine) was anatomically incorrect. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was something to do with the fin being the wrong size or not being in the right position. Anyway, it was unacceptable and needed to be pointed out! Needless to say The Society changed it on the next vintage as that’s the kind of organisation they are…

      Reply
  1. rosemarykaye

    I was glad to read this, Jacqui, as I listened to the first instalment of the reading on Radio 4 last night, and felt that it didn’t add anything to Hazel Holt’s excellent 1990 biography ’A Lot to Ask’.

    Clearly there is more to it than that, and I will persevere!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, good! I have to admit to not having read the Hazel Holt, so it’s impossible for me to compare directly. That said, I do get the impression that Byrne’s biography is much more detailed than Holt’s in a number of key areas. There’s quite a bit on Pym’s first love, Rupert Gleadow, in here, who I gather did not receive much of a mention in the Holt. (It seems that Pym lost her virginity to Gleadow in a particularly unpleasant way. The relevant pages of Pym’s diary are missing, presumably as a result of the embarrassment and devastation she felt at the whole incident. Nevertheless, Byrne has pieced things together by reading through the lines.) There’s also quite a bit in here about Pym’s flirtation with a German SS Officer Friedbert Gluck, who was very close to Hitler in the mid 1930s. Again, this seems to have been glossed over in the Holt, whereas Byrne has a whole section entitled ‘Germany’, exploring Pym’s love affair with German culture as well as with Gluck. It’s a fascinating read, all 600+ pages of it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lovely to hear from you again Madame Bibi! How are you? I’ve been thinking of you on and off over the last few months and hoping that you were okay. Do feel free to drop me a DM as it would be great to catch up… In the meantime, I’m so glad you enjoyed this anecdote. It really is very Pym-like!

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    Great anecdote. I too have heard some of the serialisation (abridged, of course) on Radio 4 – link here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000v1pr
    I posted on the letters and notebooks recently, from which Byrne has taken quite a lot of her material. I’m a member of the Wine Society, and love that white burgundy with the fish label; bit nitpicking, surely, to point out a fin malfunction! Pym apparently had to be encouraged to withdraw the Nazi references from the novel she was writing in the 30s when she was smitten with the SS officer you mention (was it Some Tame Gazelle? Can’t remember.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s right. It was Some Tame Gazelle. The early drafts, which Pym penned in the mid 1930s, contained several references to Germany and its countrymen. In fact Pym actually submitted it to Chatto and Windus in this format back in ’37, but luckily it was rejected at the time, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different. It was her great friend Jock Liddell who persuaded her to ‘omit the Nazis’, much everyone’s relief. She wasn’t the only Briton to have been attracted by the allure of Germany in the 1930s, and to be fair, her love affair with the country (and its men) stemmed from her passion for its culture and landscapes. But she was perhaps a bit naïve in maintaining a relationship with Gluck for so long. Once the true extent of Germany’s intentions toward the Jews became clearer, Pym stripped out all the references to the country, so the published version of Gazelle (from 1950) was a German-fee zone!

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        She wasn’t the only one – especially in the middle and upper classes – to find the Nazis attractive: I think she had a tendency to overlook the defects in the men she developed passions for, as well. She didn’t always choose well.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, you’re right. I think it illustrates how difficult it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved…

          Reply
  3. heavenali

    Ha ha, oh I love that M&S story, so Pym! You have whetted my appetite for this one which is winging its way to me as we speak. I suspect I will read it almost straight away.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful? I think you’re going to love it, Ali. The only thing I’d say is that it’s a proper chunkster. I’ve actually resorted to propping the book up on a support as trying to hold it in my hands while reading was killing my upper back (an ongoing problem which has been the cause of many a migraine over the years). You might need to do something similar to read it comfortably as it’s not terribly easy to hold!

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Oh wonderful ! I can’t wait to read this. From your review and the one in The Guardian I have gained the impression that Pym was a delightfully fallible human being(as well as an excellent writer.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed. She wore her heart on her sleeve so to speak and was easily hurt. Not only by men but by Jonathan Cape (her initial publishers) too. It’s a fascinating read.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a lovely story – thanks for sharing this, Jacqui! I’ll look forward to hearing more about the biog in due course – having read and enjoyed several Pyms, I’m wondering whether I would want to return to her and maybe read this biog at some point. Her writing is wonderfully sharp, and there’s been enough of a gap since I last read her. As you and others say, the story could have been lifted out of one of her books – wonderful! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Delighted to hear that you enjoyed the anecdote, Karen. I do recall you saying that you’d probably OD’d on Pym during a readalong some years back (possibly to tie in with her centenary?). Anyway, as you say, there’s always the option of returning to her in the future. The biog is fascinating, so it might be a suitable re-entry point for you…

      Reply
  6. Liz Dexter

    I love Pym and I need this so much – I have a sort of book-buying ban on at the moment while I reduce the TBR but it’s going straight on the To Buy Next list!

    Reply
  7. 1streading

    I read the Guardian review of this and it does seem as if much of the content of her novels came form her life – that she perhaps even sought characters out in life to write about in a way? Perhaps that’s why she seems have always chosen unsuitable men!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t think she sought them out deliberately for the purposes of her fiction, but she was drawn to unsuitable men, that’s very clear from the biography. Unfortunately, Pym was one of those sensitive types who wore her heart on her sleeve, falling fast and hard for those who attracted her attention. A conversation for another time, perhaps, but I feel so much empathy for her in this respect, having invested all my emotions in two or three doomed relationships with men myself. I definitely had a ‘type’, and that type was ill-judged/unobtainable!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! More next week, I promise. And yes, I will look out for the Hazel Holt. Maybe not immediately as too much of a good thing can be a bit overwhelming…but it’s definitely on my radar. X

      Reply
  8. Pingback: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 1 | JacquiWine's Journal

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