The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of Paula Byrne’s marvellous new biography of Barbara Pym. If you missed it, you can catch up with it here as this post carries straight on from the first.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this biography – and there are many things to treasure here – are the connections Byrne makes between Pym’s personal life and the threads in her fiction. Over the course of her career, Pym drew extensively on her own personal experiences, creating an environment populated with excellent, unassuming woman, pompous, unobservant husbands, fusty, isolated academics and precious young curates. Spinsterhood was a recurring theme, from ‘contended spinsters’ such as Belinda Bede from Some Tame Gazelle to exploited spinsters such as Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women.

It is a world that seems at once both farcical and recognisable, such was Pym’s insight into the foibles of human nature. In effect, the novels became outlets for Pym’s deepest feelings, particularly those of loss, hurt and unrequited love.

In Some Tame Gazelle – which features two sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, closely modelled on how Barbara and her younger sibling Hilary might be living when they reach their fifties – Pym channelled former lover Henry Harvey for her portrayal of Archdeacon Hoccleve, a pompous, self-centred man whom Belinda worships from afar.

In Some Tame Gazelle, the Archdeacon loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice, bores his parishioners with his overlong, wordy sermons, and is jealous of his curates. Many of Henry’s traits and peccadilloes are depicted in this handsome, selfish, petulant, lazy, conceited and not terribly bright man of the cloth: his dislike of olives, his delicate constitution, his habit of lying in bed in the morning, his constant complaints. His Viennese red wool socks that Belinda must forever darn. (p. 133)

Hoccleve is a brilliant creation, all the more so when we realise how closely he resembles Henry in both character and behaviour. (You can read more about Pym’s romantic entanglements with Henry Harvey in part 1 of my review.)

Byrne highlights several other examples too. There is more than a hint of Julian Amery – a sophisticated young man who had a fling with Barbara, only to drop her quite casually – in Simon Beddoes, the ambitious young politician who featured in Pym’s marvellous ‘Oxford novel’ Crampton Hodnet.

Another of Pym’s lovers, Gordon Glover, provided the inspiration for Fabian Driver, the handsome yet vain widower from Jane and Prudence. Pym fell hard for Gordon, the estranged husband of her close friend Honor Glover; and while Honor knew about Pym’s relationship with Gordon, the situation was complicated by the fact that the two women were sharing a house (along with Barbara’s sister, Hilary) at the time.

In short, Barbara was mesmerised by Gordon, but their affair ended after just two months when he dumped her rather abruptly shortly after the Christmas break. While Gordon seemed to be treating their relationship as a fling, Barbara was hoping for something more lasting. As a consequence, Pym poured all of her hurt over the rejection by Gordon Glover – and his cowardice in not being straight with her – into another novel, the pitch-perfect Excellent Women. Here we see Pym writing with a whole new level of insight into affairs of the heart, particularly the intense bruising that can come from being sidelined.

Another rejection provided inspiration for the novel The Sweet Dove Died, written around 1970 but only published followed Pym’s renaissance later that decade. At close to fifty, Pym fell in love with another somewhat unsuitable chap, Richard Roberts, aka Skipper. A rugged, ‘virile-looking’ man, Skipper was eighteen years Pym’s junior and a homosexual; and while Pym appeared to be aware of Skipper’s sexual leanings from an early stage, it didn’t stop her from falling hard for him. Skipper had a certain degree of charisma, but there was also a dark side to his personality, an irascible, depressive streak that made him difficult to like. Once again Pym was ‘off-loaded’, an experience that she channelled into her art, penning Dove as a kind of riposte. It is considered one of Pym’s most melancholy novels, a reflection no doubt of her feelings at the time.

To compound matters, Skipper’s rejection coincided with Pym’s well-documented ‘Wilderness Years’, which commenced when Jonathan Cape declined to published her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. The year was 1963 – which Byrne terms as Pym’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ – when significant social changes were sweeping through Britain. As such, Pym’s rather genteel image seemed oddly out-of-step with modern trends and considerations.

Beatlemania had begun, and with it a cult of youth and working-class rebellion in which Pym’s world suddenly looked unfashionably middle aged and middle class – though she herself liked their records. (p. 486)

It didn’t help that the novel portrayed a cross-class relationship as being ‘unsuitable’, just at a time when class barriers were being demolished.

Pym was deeply hurt by Cape’s actions, particularly the manner of their brush-off, which was communicated to her in a cold letter, without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or phone call to soften the blow. Several other publishers subsequently declined An Unsuitable Attachment, and its successor The Sweet Dove Died; however, the respected writer Philip Larkin proved himself Pym’s saviour…

Larkin and Pym had been friends for many years, writing to one another over the course of a couple of decades. The poet was a huge fan of Pym’s novels, diligently re-reading them all every few years. As such, he was a great source of comfort to Barbara during her Wilderness Years, writing to Faber’s editor, Charles Monteith, on her behalf in the hope of securing future publications of her work.

‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it.’ (Letter from Larkin to Charles Monteith, p. 522)

Pym’s renaissance was finally secured in 1977 when the TLS ran an article asking various writers to name their most underrated authors. Pym was the only writer to receive two nominations, one from Philip Larkin, the other from Lord David Cecil. As a consequence, Pym’s fortunes changed virtually overnight. Various broadsheets wanted to interview her, Roy Plomley secured her for Desert Island Discs, and best of all, Macmillan offered to published her latest novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Even Jonathan Cape wanted to be friends with Pym again, once they’d got over the shock of her new-found popularity. The satisfaction of being able to tell them that she’d since signed with Macmillan must have been delightful for Pym! A happy ending for our heroine, very much in keeping with the tone of her early books.

I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a flavour of this absorbing biography over the past few weeks. (It really is a very comprehensive book.) There were many sides to Pym’s personality, some of them public, others more private. Ultimately, what emerges is an image of a woman who had many fascinating experiences during her lifetime, including several affairs of the heart – a rather surprising number for an English gentlewoman and spinster from the mid-20th-century! (Other than Pym’s relationship with Henry Harvey, I had very little knowledge of this aspect of her life before reading Byrne’s biography.)

While Pym’s canvases were small, the emotions she depicted were significant and universal, highlighting her sensitivity to the foibles of human behaviour. There is a sharpness in her fiction that comes from lived experience, a compassion and sense of humanity, particularly for those who have loved and lost. How I envy those of you who’ve yet to read her for the first time – you have so many treats to forward to!

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

21 thoughts on “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

  1. gertloveday

    I have been waiting for this next installment of your review and it does not disappoint. Just glorious. I can’t wait to read this book, but I might save it up for a while so I can enjoy it slowly. Wasn’t Barbara Pym a master of detail; the dislike of olives, the Viennese red wool socks? And who knew her own life was so interesting. i suppose one has come to imagine her as a tame little woman running round after the vicar. Not so!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you – I’m glad you’ve been enjoying these pieces. And yes, Pym definitely had an eye for detail. That paragraph about Henry Harvey’s traits is such a delight, partly because it goes on and on and on… He clearly had a whole host of idiosyncrasies and peccadillos for Pym to draw on in her creation of Archdeacon Hoccleve. Now I feel the need to revisit Gazelle, just to see it in this new light!

      Like you, I’m rather surprised by the image of Pym as a woman with several lovers. Not all at once of course – but even so, she wasn’t the sort of wallflower we might imagine from her fiction!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lovely! I think that’s exactly the sort of response Byrne would like to generate, that sense of encourage new and existing readers to (re)discover Pym’s best work. And yes, it was wonderful that she has a renaissance in the late ’70s, albeit a relatively brief one. It’s just a shame that she didn’t live a little longer to take advantage of the resurgence in interest…

  2. heavenali

    I have less than a hundred pages to read of this brilliant book. I am now convinced that I shall have to re-read all the novels again. As much as I love getting to know BP the woman so well, I also love being reminded in such detail of those brilliant novels.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Well, I can completely understand that as I’d very much like to revisit one or two of them myself! It’s not so long since I last looked at Excellent Women as I re-read for the Backlisted podcast on Pym at the beginning of last year. Some Tame Gazelle is the one I’d really like to go back to, mostly because it’s mentioned so much in Paula’s biography with the links to Henry Harvey etc. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to read the original draft of that novel, the one with all the references to Germany and its countrymen? I think it’s available to view in the Bodleian Archive, IIRC…

  3. Julé Cunningham

    I’ve so enjoyed this series of posts from the M&S story to Pym’s ‘rediscovery’ in the ’70s. At least she was still alive to enjoy that. I especially enjoyed imagining the sense of vindication she must have felt in telling Jonathan Cape to get lost. (Though she would have never put it so crudely.)

    It’s a bit heartbreaking to read about the series of disastrous men she fell for, but heartening to see how she could turn it into her gorgeous books.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, the sensation of telling Jonathan Cape to ‘do one’ must have been deliciously satisfying, especially after their heartless treatment of her back in the ’60s. How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that conversation or exchange of letters after the TLS piece, however it was done! And yes, I feel sad that she never found true happiness or fulfilment in her relationships with men, but at least they provided such a rich seam of material for her fiction…

  4. Liz Dexter

    While I’m all about Death of the Author and not reading the author into their books, all those enticing details that she weaves in will add to my reading of her novels, I’m sure! Thank you for these excellent and detailed reviews.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Liz. They’ve been a real pleasure to write and consider over the last couple of weeks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m now feeling the need to return to Pym’s fiction myself, especially that early novel, Some Tame Gazelle!

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

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve really enjoyed reading these posts on this book, Jacqui – I had no idea Pym had led such an eventful life (and also encountered so many rotten men!) Quite fascinating to read how she used them in her fictions (and maybe got a little revenge in the process). And lovely to read how the wonderful Philip Larkin helped to get her work taken seriously again – quite warms my heart, that does! I can understand you feeling drawn back to Pym – I suspect you might well read them in a very different way with all your new knowledge of the author’s life!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. They’ve been interesting to write, for sure. And yes, I would like to go back to one or two of those early novels at some point – especially Some Tame Gazelle, which seems to have acted as an outlet for the frustrations Pym experienced at the hands of Henry Harvey et al. The Philip Larkin/TLS episode has been well documented in the past; nevertheless, it was lovely to read about it in full, including all of Larkin’s earlier efforts in lobbying various publishers on Pym’s behalf. He really was her knight in shining armour, so to speak!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A ‘must’ for you, I’d say! While I haven’t read the Hazel Holt, Byrne’s biography does seem to be more complete and illuminating than that earlier text, especially on the subject of Pym’s lovers…I found it quite an eye-opener.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s definitely the likely response. It’s left me eager to revisit those early novels, particularly Some Tame Gazelle and Crampton Hodnet with their references to Pym’s lovers!

  7. buriedinprint

    The break in her relationship with her publisher was painful to read about (in the Hazel Holt and related materials); I felt it keenly. And her struggle to continue with the work despite that blow (and uncertainty about whether her work would be publishable, etc.) and to try to manage her disappointment. What a rich subject for a biography, and how ironic, given her chronicle of so many quiet but impassioned women’s lives, that she would make for such great (and ordinary) reading herself!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the emotional impact of that abandonment really comes through here too – and that fact that it coincided with difficulties in her relationship with Skipper made it all the more painful. We get a sense of how hurtful it must have been for Pym to suffer the indignity of being offloaded, both professionally and personally, as the world around her was changing so radically. I hope you get a chance to read this biography one day; it’s a treasure trove of insights, delivered with warmth and affection.


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