A Very Private Eye by Barbara Pym

From her university days at Oxford in the 1930s to the end of her life, Barbara Pym wrote personal diaries and long letters to friends, as well as notebooks of ideas for her novels and stories. These are collected in A Very Private Eye, subtitled An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, and together create a fascinating picture of her experiences and thoughts.

Her diaries from Oxford are full of excitement and exhilaration. She had a very full social life, with many friends, admirers and boyfriends. She writes about her studies mainly in the context of going to the Bodleian Library in the hope of seeing her various crushes of the moment, and she seems to have done well in her degree without too much effort. These Oxford diaries are very entertaining and amusing because of the way she describes people, the telling details she picks to conjure up a scene, and her sense of absurdity.

I desperately want to write an Oxford novel – but I must see first that my emotions are simmered down fairly well.

At Oxford she met Henry Harvey (christened ‘Lorenzo’ in the diaries) and fell in love with him. Although they had an affair, he did not feel as seriously about her as she did about him, and he went on to marry someone else. Many of Pym’s early diaries are about her unrequited love for Henry. Henry was the first of several men she fell for who did not reciprocate her feelings, and this begins a trend of her writing very honestly about her love affairs in her diaries, often with a sense of irony and self-mockery. Although Pym had several relationships and affairs and was clearly a very passionate person, they sometimes ended in an unhappy way and she took a long time to recover from the most important relationships in her life. There is a lot of sadness in the diaries but it is all part of the way that she lived a very full emotional life and expressed her feelings openly in writing. I suppose it’s a contrast with the comic writing she is most famous for, but the diaries are also very witty so the tone is fairly familiar from her novels.

Her diaries also give lots of interesting details of her life during the war (she worked in Censorship, joined the WRNS and was later posted to Naples) and afterwards, when she began working at the International African Institute in London and gained an insider’s view of a world of academics and anthropologists that would provide inspiration for her novels. All the time she was writing, although it took a long time for her fiction to be published. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was written in 1935 when she was only twenty-two but was not published until 1950. Even after she had become a successful novelist and was admired by many readers, she still went through a period of struggle during the 1960s when she could not find a publisher for her work. Her diaries convey the disappointment and frustration she felt, as well as showing the determined way she continued writing and attempting to get published. It is interesting to discover the reasons she was not published; her work was quite unfashionable at the time and did not fit with the culture of the ‘60s. She seems to have been viewed as too reserved and old-fashioned, as well as ‘obsessed with trivia’ as she puts it herself. I felt that these diaries often had a sense of sadness, even depression at certain times. Sometimes she expresses disappointment about her unrequited love, that she did not ever marry and that her work was unappreciated.

I also felt from reading her diaries that she was a vivacious person who was able to find meaning and interest in many aspects of life: the observations of people and snippets of conversation she recorded in her notebooks, her writing, her friendships, literature, especially English poetry, music (she often mentions listening to classical composers such as Brahms and Berlioz and the effect they have on her) and the church (which of course also inspired her novels). She also writes about her work and the problems she needed to resolve while revising her novels. I am sure that readers of her novels will find this interesting, but I think the most enjoyable part is seeing how the little everyday incidents she noted down made their way into her books and also reading the characteristically humorous or dark plot outlines that were perhaps never expanded into a novel or story.

The vicar in the dark vicarage with a broken window, near to the yew-shaded churchyard. Lives with his mother – house said to be very dirty. Vicar has to be roused from his bed (? – by an excellent woman) to take Communion Service.

*

Her eyes seemed to beg for a future meeting, but somehow he couldn’t suggest one. Instead he asked, “Are you any good at typing?”

*

I began talking about my novels, whether I should go on writing about the clergy etc. Then it occurred to me what a bore I was being and I had the idea of a young man walking with the elderly female novelist, worrying about the gathering darkness and the park closing and should he take her to tea at Stewart’s or the Marble Arch Corner House or would it be sherry time or what?

In the 1970s she was rediscovered after two writers, Philip Larkin and Sir David Cecil, praised her in an article on underrated novelists and her work came back into print again. In fact she received a great deal of critical acclaim and was nominated for the Booker prize for Quartet in Autumn. I felt it was so lucky that, all because of the publication of this article in the Times Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym lived long enough to see her novels come back into favour and that she was able to enjoy several years of recognition and fame before she died.

(This post is getting quite long so I will stop now but there will be a little more in the next post on her correspondence and friendship with Larkin, which was a section of the book I particularly liked).

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