Last week I posted a little excerpt from Paula Byrne’s comprehensive new biography of Barbara Pym, one of my favourite underappreciated writers from the mid-20th century. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite for this truly immersive book, which I plan to cover in more detail over the course of the week. (It really is a most fascinating read!)
Byrne digs deep into the detail here, following Pym from her childhood in Shropshire to her twilight years in Oxfordshire, illuminating with great clarity and affection each distinct phase of the author’s life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is written in the style of a picaresque narrative, which gives the book a jaunty tone, very much in line with its subject’s world. As such, it is presented as an engaging sequence of vignettes with titles such as ‘Miss Pym’s Summer of Love’, ‘Miss Pym passes her Interview’ and ‘Hullo Skipper’.
Following her birth in Oswestry in 1913, Pym lived through a remarkable period of history, a time that encompassed two World Wars, a royal abdication and sweeping social change; and while it would be impossible for me to cover all aspects of her life in these reviews, I hope to convey something of the flavour of the book.
Pym’s childhood was a happy and loving one. Born into a respectable, middle-class family in 1913, Barbara was well suited to Oswestry’s comfortable routines. Her father, Frederic, was a good-natured solicitor, and her mother, Irena, the epitome of the ‘excellent women’ Pym would go on to portray with great affection in her novels.
Irena – an avid reader and lover of music – had clear ambitions for Barbara and her younger daughter, Hilary, supporting their education in the hope they would progress to Oxford. In 1931, Barbara gladly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, winning a place at St Hilda’s College to read English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these new surrounding proved stimulating and exhilarating to the young Pym, and she embraced University life with great enthusiasm and relish.
Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’. In no small part this was because she suddenly found herself the centre of male attention and, like many girls from single-sex schools, she was ready to enjoy being in the company of young men. As with her heroine, Miss Bates, in her third published novel Jane and Prudence, the male undergraduates beat a path to Pym’s door. It was not only the preponderance of men (the ratio was one woman to ten men) that enhanced her desirability, but also the fact that she was so funny and interesting. She was in particular a magnet for homosexual men, who were drawn to her wit and playfulness. (pp. 26–27)
As a witty, highly original young woman, Pym was not short of male admirers, and Byrne devotes several chapters to the romantic adventures in our heroine’s life, many of which proved hurtful and damaging. Pym tended to rush headlong into love affairs, confessing all her most intimate feelings in the pages of her diaries. Naturally, Byrne draws heavily on these texts in this biography, particularly as they offer such a rich seam of material.
Pym’s first real love was a Classics student named Rupert Gleadow, and while their letters to one another were both affectionate and passionate, Barbara was clearly coming under pressure to take things a step further. When Barbara finally agreed to sleep with Rupert, the incident caused a rupture in their relationship – the relevant pages from Barbara’s diary are missing, presumably ripped out from intense embarrassment and distress. The specifics of what happened that night remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it is clear from the state of Barbara’s diary and her subsequent withdrawal from Rupert that she felt pressurised, ultimately losing her virginity in a most unpleasant way. It must have been an incredibly traumatic thing for any young woman to process at the time, especially someone of Barbara’s sensitivity. The very least she could do was to purge the incident from her diary if not from her memories and mindset.
Other lovers duly followed, perhaps most significantly, Henry Harvey, a handsome student whom Pym ‘stalked’ at the Bodleian Library – his ‘herringbone tweed grey overcoat and brown leather gloves, lined with lambswool’ were duly noted. Unfortunately for Barbara, Henry led her a bit of a merry dance, playing things cool and flirting with other admirers, even though their relationship had become sexual.
In truth, the deeply sensitive Pym was too open with her affections, falling fast and hard for this dashing intellectual with a tendency for cruelty. Henry abused Pym’s affections, but he was also capable of great compassion alongside the callousness, and Pym remained attracted to him for several years. Sadly, Pym’s early experiences with Henry set something of a pattern for her future relationships with men – as Byrne quite correctly notes in the biography, ‘the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt’.
Alongside Pym’s romantic entanglements, Byrne shines a light on many other aspects of Pym’s life, not least her war work in the Wrens and subsequent role in the African Institute, where she became involved in the field of anthropology. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pym would gravitate to such an area, concerned as it is with the subject of human behaviour.
Also covered within the biography is Pym’s fascination with Germany – its culture, its landscapes and ultimately its men (her rather naïve flirtation with an SS Officer, Friedbert Glück, is explored in some detail). Interestingly, the initial mid-1930s drafts of her early novel, Some Tame Gazelle, contained several references to Germany; however, Pym finally removed them on the advice of her friend, Jock Liddell – a trusted Oxford contemporary who helped Barbara with her early manuscripts.
Like many Britons in the 1930s, Pym was drawn to the allure of developments in Germany, only to subsequently realise the true horror of Hitler’s regime as the war drew closer. Pym remained blinkered to the reality of the situation for some time, refusing to believe that her darling Friedbert could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, his closeness to Hitler made this a distinct possibility. It’s a salutary experience that highlights just how challenging it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved.
Luckily Pym ultimately saw the light, and by the time of its publication in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle had been stripped of all references to Germany and its countrymen. In hindsight, it is rather lucky that Pym’s initial submission of Gazelle was rejected by Chatto & Windus in the mid ‘30s, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different…
That’s it for today. More in part 2 of this review when I’ll be looking at how Pym mined her own personal experiences as source material for her fiction. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this insightful biography, particularly as it sets Pym’s fiction in a more personal context.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
Her life was as entertaining as her novels!
Yes, I have to admit to being quite surprised by the number of affairs she had. I knew about Henry Harvey but not some of the others, particularly Rupert and Friedbert.
This sounds such an excellent biography. Taking the jaunty tone in reflection of the world of her novels is a lovely approach.
It’s a really nice touch and feels very much line with Pym’s diaries at the times. She also had various aliases or alter egos back then, particularly in her Oxford days – a way of trying out different aspects of her personality, I guess. There was Pymska and Sandra, the latter representing her ‘sexier’ side! She was something of a dark horse at heart, underneath that rather cosy image that developed over time.
Wow, that’s quite a fascinating life indeed! I love Pym and this entire biography sounds marvellous.
More to follow on Thursday – equally interesting, I hope!
This sounds excellent. I haven’t read much by BP (I know, need to remedy that asap…!), but do you think this would hamper enjoyment of the biography, or does it provide a good set up for reading the novels in due course?
That’s a really interesting question, Liz. Yes, I do think this would make a great intro to Pym for the uninitiated. When Paula mentions the novels, she’s very careful to focus the discussion on how they relate to Pym’s life at the time, so these sections never feel too detailed or inaccessible to someone who hasn’t read the book(s) in question. I’ve yet to read An Unsuitable Attachment and The Sweet Dove Died myself, both of which are mentioned in the biography — and yet, I was still able to appreciate what Paula was saying about the books and their links to certain events in Pym’s life. These discussions are also spoiler-free, so there’s no real risk of scuppering the reader’s enjoyment of these novels, should they decide to read them further down the line.
So, in summary, I’d say go for it. But if you’d prefer to start with a novel, it probably ought to be Some Tame Gazelle – you’ll see why in my next piece!
Thanks so much for these thoughts, Jacqui – I have put both the biog and Tame Gazelle on the TBR 😀
Great. I hope you enjoy them!
I’m 100 pages in and loving the story and the style, Paula Byrne has found a clever way of recording her subject. In tandem I’m also reading ‘Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me’ by John Sutherland. Also great writing but this subject would certainly not have worked with a jaunty approach!
Wonderful – I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, both the subject matter and the author’s style! I saw a review of the Sutherland fairly recently, and it sounded very interesting – what a great idea to read them in tandem, especially given Larkin’s connection to Pym!
Wonderful! Can’t wait fir the next episode.
Lovely! Later this week, all being well…
I’ve not read this yet Jacqui, but I did listen to the extracts on Radio 4 last week.
I just couldn’t decide about the tone, and i do appreciate that extracts are no substitute for reading the book oneself, but from what little I’ve seen of Pym on TV and heard on the radio, she seemed quite a shy, serious person. I felt the reader last week was maybe too jolly. And I suppose I also feel a little bit protective of Pym – Hazel Holt’s biography sort of respected her privacy, which I imagine is what Barbara would have wanted.
But I can see that this is a potential problem for all biographers, and if I read one about someone else (eg I’ve got Mary Wesley’s sitting here waiting for me) I would no doubt be less bothered about what it revealed. It would have been interesting to hear Hazel’s thoughts on this one, but sadly she died in 2015.
I expect I’m being a bit too precious about Pym – she’s just been so dear to me for all my adult life. I feel a bit like Belinda, who ‘had loved him (the Archdeacon) faithfully for thirty years’!
That’s such an interesting series of observations, Rosemary – and I hear what you’re saying about respecting and author’s privacy, I really do. Having listened to Paula Byrne talk about Pym, I get sense that she felt there was a more complete story to tell here, particularly around the areas that had been glossed over in Hazel Holt’s earlier biography. Nevertheless, you’re absolutely right to raise the question of privacy, and I guess there’s no way of us truly knowing how Barbara herself would have felt about the new book, even though all her notebooks (effectively diaries) and papers are accessible via the Bodleian archive.
I do think Byrne feels a huge amount of warmth and affection for Pym, and it’s clear she tried to approach her subject with these feelings in mind. It does sound as though she had the full backing of the Barbara Pym Society too, which is reassuring to hear – no doubt they also feel very protective about Pym’s legacy. (Interestingly, Byrne mentioned that their feedback on the biography has been very positive; in fact they’ve got an event coming up with her in early May, which sounds great.)
Re: the Radio 4 Book of the week readings, I haven’t heard them yet, but your comments on the reader’s tone have piqued my interest. I’ll have to catch-up with them when I’m out for a solo walk!
Thanks again for your comments, Rosemary. I don’t think you’re being overly precious at all, just very protective of an author you clearly adore!
Thanks Jacqui, that’s all very interesting. I have been a member of the Pym Society on and off, and even been to one of their American conferences (I can’t tell you what an experience that weekend was, I’ll never forget it); many of the members are real experts, so if they approve of it it must be good!
And that’s a very fair point about all of the material being available in the Bodleian, I hadn’t considered that.
I feel I need to gird my loins and get a copy. I do think it is great that Pym is getting more attention now. I don’t consider all of her novels to be perfect by any means (the two you have yet to read are neither of them my favourites) but when she is good she is exceptionally so, and once you have read Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle and No Fond Return of Love, I think you find ‘Pym moments’ so often in everyday life. Sometimes I can’t imagine observing things without her in the back of my mind – she’s been there for so long! (I was reading one of Penelope Mortimer’s short stories the other day – it had nothing to do with Pym really, but when she mentioned a sea front hotel, it took me straight back to Dulcie and Viola walking along the prom and watching all the smarter, richer people – all in couples, naturally! – dining in an opulent hotel restaurant, while D & V, of course, had had their uninspiring, and alcohol-free, meal several hours earlier in their depressing guest house.)
Yes, absolutely! I know just what you mean about experiencing ‘Pym moments’ in day-to-day life, particularly those little slights which can feel so cutting. That’s a lovely reminder of No Fond Return… too. All that stalking that Dulcie gets up to – it’s hilarious! And there’s a moment when Pym inserts herself into the novel — as another guest in the dining room, I think. It’s bordering on metafiction in that respect.
The Pym Society conference sounds wonderful, What a treat! And I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of Byrne’s biography, should you decide to take the plunge and read it – especially given your interest in Pym and her work!
I hadn’t really thought about reading this until your review, which has definitely piqued my interest (I don’t read many bios). I do love Pym’s novels and this definitely sounds like it would enrich my re-reads of them.
Yes, I think it would, and ‘enrich’ is a very good way of expressing it! I’m going to talk a bit more about the links between events in Pym’s personal life and how they inspired certain elements of the novels in my next piece, hopefully later this week.
Brilliant summary Jacqui. I am a little over 320 pages into this book, and finding it fascinating. I hadn’t realised just how involved with her German boyfriend she was. I have read the Hazel Holt book ages ago but it seems less comprehensive now in retrospect.
Thanks, Ali. I’m so glad you’re finding it so interesting, especially given your fondness for Pym. It’s so illuminating, isn’t it? I have to admit to being quite surprised by the number of affairs she had. I knew about Henry Harvey but not some of the others, particularly Rupert and Friedbert…
Oh, lovely post Jacqui! What a fascinating sounding biography this is; having read some of Pym’s work, I think I might like the tone the biographer adopts here. And thinking about it, I actually know very little about Pym’s life and from what you say in this initial post, it sounds as though the book really would illuminate both life and work. Intriguing that she attracted a number of homosexual men, as they do feature as characters in many of the books of hers I’ve read. Like you, I had no idea she’d had so many relationships, yet ultimately remained single I think? Life informing art again, then, as most of her main characters struggled in their relationships too. Look forward to your next post!
Yes, that’s it exactly! Life informing art. I think she mined her life for those small yet significant moments that can be so telling, indicative of the complexities of human nature that she understood so well. It’s such a fascinating book, shedding light on so many aspects of her personality that have remained ‘hidden’ for decades. And on the point of homosexual men, Byrne makes an interesting case for Pym being quite forward-thinking in her attitudes to sexuality – as you say, she wrote about gay men and (in some instances) their relationships with straight women (e.g. The Sweet Dove Died, which I’ve yet to read). I think you’d find it a really absorbing book!
Very good review. Poor thing–those ripped out diary pages. I hope this is released in the USA, but I’m not holding my breath. I may order it from the UK this summer.
Thanks. Yes, that aspect of her diary is very telling and, as you say, devastating to see…
Byrne’s publishers are working on a US release date, so fingers crossed you’ll be able to read it relatively soon.
Good to hear on the US release date.
I can’t wait to read this, they’ve sold out in my local bookshop! I do think having some knowledge of the author means you get more from the text, wonderful stuff!
Oh my goodness, it must be proving popular – that’s really great to hear! I hope you manage to get hold of a copy very soon…
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So looking forward to having access to this, you’ve written beautifully about how well the author has combined Pym’s life with the work and the influences.
Ah, thank you! It’s been delightful to write these pieces, particularly as Byrne’s biography feels so immersive. You really get a sense of Pym’s life with its various ups and downs.
I feel a bit like RosemaryKaye on Pym but I feel reassured by your, Ali’s, etc. reads of the book and aim to get hold of it in my upcoming Book Token Splurge. I have this and your next piece to read, as I’m behind with my blogs, so pressing on now …
Lovely! I think Ali will be particularly well positioned to give a view on it as she has read the earlier biography by Hazel Holt (which I’d known about but hadn’t got to in advance of reading this new one). From what I’ve seen of Ali’s responses to the Byrne, I think you can feel reassured. It’s such a comprehensive book, and while Byrne does cover some tricky subjects — Pym’s horrific experiences with Rupert Gleadow and her flirtation with the Nazi boyfriend — she does so with the best intentions. Her warmth and affection for Pym really shines through.
Yes, i’ve chatted to Ali about the Hazel Holt (which I have, too) and this one and this one in general (I SAW her on Wednesday, which was marvellous!). I feel I do really want to read it now! And all her books again.
How lovely that you’ve been able to see Ali in person, that’s great! We’ve been catching up (along with Karen) via Zoom, but it’s never quite the same as being able to see someone in the flesh.
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Shortly before Covid, I did a spate of research at the reference library downtown to write a short biography of Pym for the Literary Ladies website and I was surprised by her romances and love affairs, especially the lingering attachments. (I’ve read the diaries but so many years ago, when I first discovered her, that I’d forgotten most of the details.) I also really enjoyed the bits about her growing up with her parents and her working life, the interest in anthropology and how it was working in the offices, with Hazel Holt. Not sure if this bio is available over here yet, but I’m keen to read it, when possible. Meanwhile, enjoying your posts…onto the next now!
How lovely! Like you, I was surprised by all the love affairs and lingering attachments. I’d known about Henry Harvey but not the others, so the various insights about Friedbert, Gordon Glover and Skipper came as quite a series of revelations. She was rather more involved with these various men than her cosy image suggests. I do really feel for her though, the fact that circumstances conspired against her in these relationships must have been so difficult to bear, especially given Jonathan Cape’s abandonment of her in the 1960s and ’70s.
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