In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.

37 thoughts on “In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

  1. mallikabooks15

    Lovely–I like look of these; I was introduced to Pym by an online book group may be a decade ago now, and really enjoy her books. Crampton Hodnet and A Glass of Blessings are great favourites. An Academic Question is waiting on my TBR.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re gorgeous, aren’t they? Even though I own most of these books in the current Virago livery, I’m going to be buying them all over again in the new editions. Love Crampton Hodnet! Glad to hear that it’s one of your favourites. :)

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I have a good assortment of Pym novels but am really tempted by these gorgeous reissues. Interesting that you would recommend Less than Angels for more seasoned Pym readers – it’s the one I usually recommend for those new to her work. I suppose I love her down-to-earth yet affectionate description of anthropologists. It is very funny too, although, as you say, it has a lit of reflection and depth to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! I love that you have a different insight into Less Than Angels (and its position with Pym’s body of work), possibly because of your background in anthropology. You’re making me want to revisit that novel with a fresh pair of eyes!

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Maybe we can reread it together – it has been far too long since I last looked at it! (And it would come after two novels about anthropologists that I’ve just read – or am reading).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That would be lovely! Although it would probably need to be later in the year for me as I’d like to read A Glass of Blessings first. Maybe sometime in the autumn, if that would work for you?

          Reply
  3. rosemarykaye

    How lovely to have these new editions (I still haven’t quite forgiven Persephone for declining to republish them..)

    I think I’ve read all of these – Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle, No Fond Return of Love and A Glass of Blessings many times. And I do agree about wonderful Crampton Hodnet, it needs to be at least as well known as the rest.

    It’s a shame that so many people think of Pym solely as a light, comfort read. She does comfort me immensely at times, but as you say, there’s so much more to her than that. (And sometimes when other people produce lists of their comfort reads I find myself thinking ‘what? You find *that* comforting?!’)

    The way Mildred is used by Helena and Rocky in EW is funny, yes, but also sad and almost cruel. (I was myself in a strikingly similar situation many, many years ago and when I look back on it now I cringe at my naivety 🙄.) And the suffering of the truly naive (because Mildred isn’t really that naive) Winifred Malory is terrible to witness.

    And in A Glass of Blessings Wilmet learns a lot about herself. She reminds me of Austen’s Emma, someone who thinks she knows everything when in fact she always fails to see what is right under her nose.

    And of course there IS so much humour too, especially in those early novels. Harriet is priceless, so too Mrs Bone and William caldicote.

    Thanks for this interesting post – on one of my most favourite authors, who’s given me so much pleasure over the years.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Such a thoughtful, generous series of comments, Rosemary – thank you for taking the time to post them. I know you’re a huge fan of Pym’s work, so it’s fascinating to hear your thoughts on various aspects of her work.

      I agree that Pym has almost certainly suffered from being unfairly pigeon-holed as a writer of light comfort reads at various points in her career. It reminds me of those dreadful comments Saul Bellow made about Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey when he was on the judging panel for the Booker Prize back in the early ’70s. “Do I hear the tinkling of teacups?” or words to that effect…just awful.

      Both Pym and Taylor have far more to offer than light social comedy. Their understanding of human behaviour – and the ability to render this so carefully on the page — is incredibly impressive. As you say, there’s quite a lot of sadness in Pym’s novels. Unrequited love, single women being taken for granted, casual slights from unfeeling, pushy women (I’m thinking of Lady something-or-the from the village fete scene in Some Tame Gazelle here – and Allegra Gray from Excellent Women, of course). I could go on!

      A Glass of Blessings sounds marvellous. I’m so looking forward to reading it in the new edition. Funnily enough, I’ve been saving for ages, just it to have a top-tier Pym to look forward to, so the new reissue only adds to the appeal!

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Lovely post Jacqui! I have A Glass of Blessings in the TBR, although not in those gorgeous editions. A really wonderful reissue. I want to read more Pym (I’ve only read Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn) so your summaries are incredibly tempting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – you’ve got lots to explore, then! I’m very much looking forward to reading A Glass of Blessings, hopefully at some point over the summer.

      Reply
  5. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat

    Shelving library books in the 1980s, I’m sure I’ve handled a lot of Barbara Pyms, but I’ve never read one. I found Some Tame Gazelle at a book swap in 2019 and it hasn’t made it to the top of the pile yet. But unexpectedly my book club, which tends more to contemporary and international, is going to be reading Excellent Women in July. I was intending on buying a cheap ebook, but the new Virago covers are extremely tempting. I’m thinking of reading Gazelle first, so I’m glad you recommend it as a good starting point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s terrific to hear! I think you’ll have a great book club discussion about Excellent Women as there’s quite a bit of depth in it. While views on marriage and the life of a single woman have changed substantially since the early ’50s, many of the underlying emotions and feelings remain relevant (hopefully they’ll continue to resonate with today’s readers). It’s probably more reflective than some of Pym’s other novels, particularly with Mildred’s musings on her life choices, but there’s a lovely seam of dry wit in this novel too. And yes, Gazelle would make a great starting point, a wonderful foundation for some of the reflections in Excellent Women.

      I do hope you enjoy her – and I’d love to hear how your book group get on, should you have a chance to feed back!

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    I so enjoyed Barbara Pym when I read her years ago. I’m afraid I went on something of a binge and read them all one after the other. Virago have done her proud and will hopefully bring many new readers to her books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha – she can be very moreish, I must admit. The new covers are lovely, aren’t they? And, as you say, hopefully they’ll appeal to a whole new generation of readers. She’s definitely worthy of another renaissance.

      Reply
  7. penwithlit

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    When I think of her novels, I see chinless curates and Church jumble sales. She was rediscovered by the excellent David Cecil. Her biography appeared quite recently and her taste in right wing members of the Herrenvolk worrying. Good to see the novels relaunched, however.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think she came to regret that flirtation with a prominent Nazi in the years which followed. Possibly a case of being swept up in the allure of Germany as a nation in the ‘30s, according to Pym’s biographer Paula Byrne. She certainly wasn’t the only Briton to be taken in…

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post, Jacqui, and it’s always lovely to be reminded of Pym. I read a lot of her books back in the day, and she has plenty of sharp insights buried in the stories. I think for me they did suffer a bit from being read too close together, but I haven’t ruled out a revisit at some point. My editions were mainly the ones where Virago had brightly coloured very inappropriate covers, as if they were trying to market them as chick-lit, which I really didn’t like – so it’s lovely to see them being relaunched in stylish new editions!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I remember you mentioning that before, the sense of them all merging together when read over a relatively short period of time. I’ve been mindful of spacing them out over the past few years, reading one every six months or so, just to give them enough room to breathe. And yes, the current covers do look at bit chick-lity (if that’s a word), especially Jane and Prudence. Fingers crossed these new editions will be a massive success as she so deserves to be widely read!

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    I can’t say I am a fan of the new covers though they are an improvement on the last lot. So I might be tempted to replace some of my editions with these. I have about 5 of the Moyer-Bell editions of Pym, an American publication and those have probably spoilt me for other editions. However, it is great to see BP getting more attention and perhaps finding a whole new audience. I think An Academic Question is the only Pym I have just read once. Some Tame Gazelle I have read three times, all the others twice. I should revisit her more often. Quartet in Autumn is my favourite, such a brilliant novel, so much depth and pathos to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think Quartet in Autumn is my favourite too, along with Jane and Prudence from her pre-wilderness years. I didn’t include Quartet here as it’s published by Pan Mac rather than Virago, but it’s definitely one of Pym’s strongest books.

      I saw your photo of the Moyer Bell editions on Twitter. So beautiful! They look like William Morris designs (or very close in style). And yes, while personal views on the designs will vary (more so than I had anticipated before I posted this piece!), they’re bound to attract a whole new sector of potential readers, which can only be a good thing!

      Reply
  10. Julé Cunningham

    I’m a little torn on these designs and like the one for A Glass of Blessings, but am not wild about the other, it looks a bit off. It must be difficult for Virago, their classic green covers are so timeless and distinctly ‘theirs’. And helpful when scanning shelves in a shop or library for Viragos! I haven’t read all of the Pym’s work and Crampton Hodnet and Excellent Women are the books I remember best out of those read. Every time I run across her name I think of someone I used to work with who was always urging everyone to read her books, and in some cases imagining the other person’s reactions to a Pym book gave me a quiet laugh!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it funny how our (as in ‘everyone’s’) tastes vary on the ‘right’ cover art for Pym? Of the two, the artwork for An Academic Question appeals to me most, although I really like both of them! The old green Viragos, with the classic paintings on the covers, are going to so hard to better, especially for longstanding fans of Pym’s work. But I love the marriage between retro and contemporary styling in these new reissues as a vibrant, fresh look for Miss Pym!

      Reply
  11. Jane

    I haven’t read An Academic Question, hooray! I gobbled them up when I first discovered her but I think a more considered read through is now needed. Infuriating when people make such ignorant comments as tinkling tea cups, I somehow expect more insight from writers.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think she’d be fascinating to revisit a little later in life. In some respects, I’m glad didn’t ‘discover’ her until I was in my early fifties as the thirty-something version of me might have mistakenly considered her a little twee. And yes, Bellow’s comments are infuriating – a very narrow, arrogant and potentially misogynistic viewpoint on his part. Boo!

      Reply
  12. Liz Dexter

    Oh, I do like those covers, well done to them for getting them right (e.g. the totally weird Iris Murdoch reprints from Vintage, swiss cheese plant leaves and all!). I love Pym and would like to re-read all of them soon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you like them. Funnily enough, I think they’re by the same artist as those striking Vintage reissues, so bravo Virago for taking the plunge!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I love those Vintage Murdoch covers, but as my knowledge of her fiction is extremely limited (I’ve only read Under the Net so far) I couldn’t give a view on how close a match they are in terms of ‘feel’. You’re much better placed than me to do that, so I’ll bow to your judgement!

          Reply

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