Barbara Pym

Philip Larkin sent me a photograph of his new Library extension. Was ever a stranger photo sent by a man to a woman (in a novel she might be disappointed).

I very much enjoyed the sections of A Very Private Eye containing Barbara Pym’s letters to Philip Larkin, who supported her throughout the years when her books fell out of favour and helped spark the revival of her work in the 1970s. I think the friendships between authors can be fascinating, especially when it’s two writers I like independently of one another. A Very Private Eye only contains Pym’s side of the correspondence but it intrigued me enough to make me want to read Larkin’s side – I am sure it must be published in collections of his own letters and I would also like to re-read and discover more of his poetry.

It struck me initially that both Pym and Larkin seemed fairly reserved characters and there was a slightly formal politeness and distance in their letters (for the first couple of years she was writing to ‘Mr Larkin’); it wasn’t as if they were pouring out all their emotions to each other. Apart from Pym’s characteristic restraint and privacy, this might have been because their correspondence began on a professional footing – Larkin wrote to Pym to suggest that he might write a review article about her next novel – and because they didn’t actually meet until fourteen years after the first letter! (Incidentally I am curious in general about the relationships between letter writers who have never met. 84 Charing Cross Road is the one literary example I can think of but I’m sure there must be more).

Because Pym wrote to Larkin about the progress she was making with her novels and responded to suggestions he made after reading the manuscripts, the letters are a wonderful insight into her writing. They also show something of her reaction to his poetry (some of her favourites are The Building, Faith Healing and Ambulances, and she chose a recording of An Arundel Tomb as one of her Desert Island Discs) and her keen interest in his career as a librarian and editor. I liked this imagined novel that arose from an impending stay in Oxford he’d told her about:

Your going to All Souls suggests a plot for a novel though I doubt if I could write it. Middle-aged unmarried female don waits eagerly for the autumn when a friend of her Oxford days (the well-known poet, librarian and whatever else you like) is coming to spend a year at All Souls (doing some kind of research, perhaps). At first it is all delightful and they go for beautiful autumnal walks on Shotover (? can one still do this) but unbeknown to her he has been visiting a jazz club in the most squalid part of the town (where is that now?) and has fallen in love with a nineteen year old girl…the ending could be violent if necessary – or he could just go off with the girl, leaving the female don reading Hardy’s poems.

Another thing that interested me was how both Pym and Larkin had regular jobs as well as their writing (she worked at the International African Institute and was assistant editor on its journal, Africa). These jobs bound them both to some degree to a mundane routine (as in Larkin’s poem about ‘the toad work’ that squats upon his life). Their correspondence is very much about the small and everyday, even in the midst of more significant events, and shows a shared relish of the ridiculous in their work and everyday life. This preoccupation with the small but revealing details of life can also be seen in Barbara Pym’s novels. At the time of their correspondence, when she was writing Quartet in Autumn, she took something that isn’t normally considered important or exciting enough to be written about (four elderly people working in an office, on the verge of retirement) and made it moving because of the way she described the details of their loneliness.

The position of the unmarried woman – unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction.

In general, I like the way Pym notices the absurdity that lies behind grandeur and ceremony, and how quickly supposedly serious events and gatherings of people can degenerate into the ridiculous. She writes about the practical necessities of life, which in her world are always attended to by women. But then she has another side to her, revealed in the diaries as well as her novels, which is romantic and attuned to the beauty of nature. She often writes about visiting churches and graveyards and has an eye for scenes that are picturesque and melancholy.

Back at my own church, on a cool greeny-grey English Sunday. We start with a George Herbert hymn – King of Glory, King of Peace – very English, like a damp overgrown churchyard. What different conceptions one could have of God according to the country one was in – those sun-baked cemeteries in Marseilles.

A Very Private Eye is a very entertaining collection and I found it so interesting to get to know someone as complex and talented as Barbara Pym through her most personal writing.


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).

Something I really enjoyed about the Easter holiday was going to a singing event at a local church on Friday.  Quite a large crowd of singers turned up and we spent the afternoon rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with some instrumentalists, before performing it as a concert in the evening. I find Mozart’s Requiem such a beautiful piece of music, so I was quite excited about this event. The singing was aided by tea and hot cross buns, and the concert raised money for the church’s new choir school so there were some cute little choir boys who handed out bouquets to the soloists at the end!

Another nice thing about the weekend was realising that I have acquired several new books that I am looking forward to reading. First of all, speaking of Barbara Pym, while I was at my parents’ house at the weekend, I managed to hunt down A Very Private Eye, a collection of Pym’s diaries and letters, and I can’t wait to find out more about the life and personality of a writer I admire. I think it is interesting when reading an author’s letters or diaries to see how much the person seems familiar from their novels and to what extent a different side to their character is revealed. I will be particularly interested to read Pym’s diaries from while she was studying in Oxford and her letters to Philip Larkin. He is one of my favourite poets so for a while now I have wanted to learn more about the friendship between them.

While rummaging through boxes of my old books at my parents’ house, I also unearthed a Muriel Spark novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, which (if I am organised enough) I hope to read for the Muriel Spark Reading Week at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have loved some of Muriel Spark’s books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) while strangely there are others I have not liked much at all (Loitering with Intent is one I remember). I do find her interesting so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this novel, especially as a quote from the Sunday Times on the cover describes it as set in ‘a 1950s Kensington of shabby-genteel bedsitters, espresso bars and A-line dresses’. That sounds perfect to me.

One of my recent book purchases is The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, which I have already started reading. As I like her writing very much, I have decided to try to read as many of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels as I can over the next few months. She also published some travel writing (A Time in Rome) and wrote memoirs about her childhood (Seven Winters) and her family’s house in Ireland (Bowen’s Court), so I’d like to try these different genres of her writing as well. The House in Paris is so far a beautifully written and mysterious novel, and I hope to write more about it later.

Finally, I have also acquired a copy of The New Moon with the Old, a novel by Dodie Smith. I enjoyed I Capture the Castle but only discovered recently that Dodie Smith had written other novels for adults. The New Moon with the Old looks like an entertaining and magical story about a woman who becomes secretary to an eccentric family, so I’m saving it for when I’m in the mood to be cheered up by my reading.

Has anyone read (or would you like to read) any of these books?

Set in Oxford during the 1930s, Crampton Hodnet is for me one of Barbara Pym’s funniest books. Pym finished it during the war but, as she was becoming increasingly involved in her war work, did not send the manuscript to publishers immediately. She later considered it too dated so it remained unpublished during her lifetime. However, I am glad it’s now available to readers as I enjoyed it very much.

The book opens by introducing two characters who also appear in Jane and Prudence: the formidable Miss Doggett and her long-suffering companion, Jessie Morrow, who are giving a tea-party for students on a gloomy Sunday in respectable north Oxford. It was difficult for me to believe that, even in the 1930s, undergraduates would willingly go to the rather stuffy and middle-aged tea-parties described in this novel, but it seems to have been a major part of student social life (perhaps because of the free tea and cake), and it does result in some of the most hilarious scenes in the novel. I particularly liked Michael and Gabriel, a foppish Brideshead-esque pair of students, who often appear to speak in unison and inexplicably worship Miss Doggett. They provide many funny moments – I would love to read more about them.

Miss Morrow is a slightly melancholy figure, who has to endure Miss Doggett’s inconsiderate demands and tactless remarks as part of her job. She listens to gramophone records on wet afternoons, dreaming that she is somewhere else. However, she has an unexpected strength of character which emerges in her occasionally cynical comments on the action going on around her and results in her friendship with Miss Doggett’s new lodger, the curate Stephen Latimer.

Miss Morrow’s life forms only one aspect of the plot, as there is a large cast of characters, mainly students, academics and their families, and the ‘excellent women’ of north Oxford. Another subplot involves professor Francis Cleveland’s affair with one of his students, Barbara Bird. Francis is married but his wife Margaret seems to have grown tired of him long ago. She practically encourages him to spend long hours in his study working on the book he has been writing for the past 28 years (‘it was not yet finished, and there seemed no prospect that it would ever be’) or to go to the Bodleian on the pretext of doing some research, in the hope that he might ‘find a nice young woman working there and take her out to tea’. This casts an unexpected light on Francis’ attraction to Barbara, since, although it causes great outrage among Miss Doggett’s social circle, Margaret is quite unperturbed by the whole matter. As usual, although she writes about people with mainly conventional opinions, Barbara Pym is not quite so conventional herself.

I found the character of Barbara interesting. She is intelligent and attractive, so it’s not difficult to see why Francis becomes smitten with her, but although she is equally drawn to him, she is not really interested in having an affair with anyone. She doesn’t like being kissed by any of her many admirers and feels that ‘there was no need even for their beautiful friendship to be turned into a sordid intrigue’. She is interested in a more idealised, non-sexual kind of love. Barbara is a romantic dreamer but her passion is really more directed towards poetry and history than towards Francis; when he declares his love to her in the British Museum, she is more interested in ‘going into raptures over Milton’s commonplace book’ in the glass case nearby. When I finished the novel, I wondered what would happen to Barbara in the future and whether she would find happiness.

Miss Morrow is another character who has romantic dreams but is equivocal about whether she wants her life to change. There is something sad about how she buys herself beautiful clothes such as the ‘dress of tender leaf green…in her wardrobe among her old, drab things, where it might have to wait many weeks before she had the courage to wear it’. But she does not really make any efforts to escape her life with Miss Doggett and seems to feel a secret contentment with her unobtrusive place as an lady’s companion. Although there is certainly a fair amount of action in Barbara Pym’s novels, at least in terms of people’s relationships, there is also the feeling that some things stay the same and that, in the end, her novels seem to come full circle. She often writes about narrow, mostly uneventful worlds whose characters derive comfort from routine and quiet. The repeating cycle of the academic year and the unchanging social background of Oxford in the 1930s are perfect for this kind of story, even though very soon of course there would be huge change with the coming of the second world war.

Personally I loved reading a novel set in the city I live in, full of details of the Bodleian, the cafes and the Botanical Gardens, but what really makes the setting come to life are the many humorous minor characters, types probably still recognisable among Oxford residents even today. As Miss Morrow strolls through the park on a sunny spring day, she sees:

Dons striding along with walking sticks, wives in Fair Isle jumpers coming low over their hips, nurses with prams, and governesses with intelligent children asking ceaseless questions in their clear, fluty voices. And then there were the clergymen, solitary bearded ones reading books, young earnest ones, like chickens just out of the egg, discussing problems which had nothing to do with the sunshine or the yellow-green leaves uncurling on the trees. There were undergraduates too, and young women with Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader or lecture notebooks under their arms, and lovers, clasping each other’s fingers and trying to find secluded paths where they might kiss. But for Miss Morrow the lovers were only a minor element; the north Oxford and clerical elements were stronger and gave more character to the ballet. She felt that even she and Miss Doggett could be principals in it…

Some Tame Gazelle is Barbara Pym’s first novel (published in 1950) and I think it’s one of her best as it’s so funny and charming. I’d already read most of her other novels and enjoyed them very much, so I wasn’t surprised to finish this one in only a couple of days. Barbara Pym began writing it when she was 21, imagining herself and her older sister Hilary as ‘spinsters’ of fifty. This resulted in the wonderful creations of Miss Belinda and Miss Harriet Bede, two sisters who live together and are involved in their parish church, dutifully helping out with garden parties, village fetes and harvest festivals.

The sisters have quite different characters; Harriet is more outgoing, cheerful and fashionable, while Belinda is thoughtful, somewhat melancholy and modest, but they are very fond of one another despite their occasional misunderstandings. Although neither of them have ever married, they do have some romance in their lives. Harriet is devoted to the succession of young curates who are posted to the church, and is constantly offering them homemade jam and hand-knitted socks or inviting them round for dinner. Meanwhile, Ricardo, an Italian count who has somehow ended up in the village, regularly proposes marriage to Harriet but she always refuses him; somehow they remain the best of friends in spite of this. Belinda on the other hand has been in love with Archdeacon Hoccleve for thirty years but unfortunately for her he is married to the capable and bossy Agatha. The novel follows the relationships of all these characters as well as various eccentric visitors to the village: the two librarians, Mr Parnell and Mr Mold, and a bishop from Africa, Theodore Grote.

One of the comic aspects of this novel is the way that the women lavish so much attention on the clergy, for example always wondering whether they are eating enough. In fact food plays a large part in the novel (in a comical way) and it seems to be the main way that people show affection to one another, apart from knitting various items of clothing. At one point Belinda wants to knit the Archdeacon a jumper, but after thinking about everything that could go wrong with it and how ‘unsuitable’ it would be for her to give such a present to a married man, she concludes that ‘the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted’. This is one of the most realistic and humorous things about Barbara Pym’s writing, the small things that appear so important and take up so much mental energy.

One thing I liked about this book was the range of characters – there is a large cast but they are all well-developed and very comical. There are some lovely scenes where they are all brought together at a dinner party or wedding. Belinda is a very likeable character. Even though her self-effacing nature and lack of courage in expressing her feelings could be frustrating, this is only because I wanted her to be happy and for other people to realise that there is more to her than her image as a respectable, worthy spinster. It’s also interesting that it’s implied that she had a lucky escape by not marrying Henry (the Archdeacon) and that she’s been able to live quite a contented life alone, while her ongoing love for him has become ‘like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woollen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance’.

Henry himself is a very amusing character – handsome and distinguished, but essentially lazy and regularly trying to delegate his parish duties to other people so he can have a lie-in or wander alone in the churchyard brooding on higher matters: ‘he fancied himself to be rather like one of those eighteenth-century clergymen suffering from the spleen.’ At the same time, he is always complaining bad-temperedly about his heavy workload and blaming his wife for neglecting her domestic duties. Belinda is extremely loyal but even she recognises he has his faults.

I know Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen and I would especially recommend this novel to Jane Austen fans. Like an Austen novel, it concentrates on the romances and everyday life of a small community, it is full of entertaining observations and is very perceptive about people’s characters. There are some scenes that echo moments in Austen’s novels but I won’t give away the plot by telling you about them! Now I’m looking forward to finding the Pym novels I still have left to read.

I have recently read several books by Barbara Pym, whose 1950s novels can always be relied on to make me laugh and keep me absorbed all the way through. My favourite of the ones I’ve read so far is Jane and Prudence, I think because the characters are her most sympathetic (although still observed in the same sharp and perceptive way). Reading it is a completely light-hearted and comforting experience. I then read The Sweet Dove Died, in which the (anti-)heroine, Leonora, is perhaps an older, more critically drawn version of the glamorous Prudence. In this novel, the sadness and loneliness of being unloved were much more apparent, since Leonora lacked Prudence’s affairs and adventures, and in fact was made miserable by her attraction to a much younger man.

The way in which Pym writes about relationships is very distinctive. Many of the characters in her books are ‘spinsters’ or slightly bored wives, who throw their energies into the church or simply interfering in the lives of their friends and neighbours. Often, beneath their apparently sensible and reserved exteriors, they are very romantic and idealistic and given to quoting nineteenth-century poetry. A recurrent theme in Pym’s novels is the idea that women need someone to love and look after, perhaps more than they need to be loved themselves, and her women characters often end up being infatuated with some unsuitable or unworthy man. A lot of the sadness in her novels comes from the way in which women don’t find anyone who appreciates their care and affection, and their desire to be useful, to be needed, goes to waste.

The next Pym novel I read was A Glass of Blessings, in which the heroine Wilmet falls for her friend’s brother Piers (who of course turns out to be not only uninterested but unavailable in every possible way). In this book, I felt that there was a greater distance between Pym and her protagonist, and as the story progresses, the reader gradually becomes aware of Wilmet’s flaws, her snobbishness and narrow-mindedness. She is so absorbed in her relationship with Piers that she doesn’t notice her husband almost having an affair, and is unaware of the developments in her other friends’ and relations’ lives. She is still a sympathetic character however and is very believable. I like the way in which Pym observes the fleeting thoughts that people have about others, but which usually go unnoticed and unrecorded. I find that her books give me the pleasure of recognition. They also revel in many of the absurd moments in life, especially in her descriptions of the church life and clergy. I would recommend her books to anyone who likes comedy that comes from slightly ridiculous dialogue and an acute observation of everyday life.

The final Pym book I’ve read (so far) is called No Fond Return of Love. I enjoyed the setting of the book (in academia and publishing, especially amidst the people who do the more mundane and unappreciated tasks), and the author’s very funny descriptions of the kind of characters who populate this world. I also liked the comic way in which the main character, Dulcie, ‘researches’ (in reality, virtually stalks) not only the man she’s fascinated by but various relatives of his as well. I would love to know what Barbara Pym would have thought of Google and Facebook! I felt that with her deep interest in people, bordering on voyeurism, Dulcie was rather like a novelist herself.

As well as all the enjoyable comedy, there is certainly a melancholy feeling about some of the books at times. Some of the humour and wistfulness of the books comes from the idea of all these single women who seemed compelled, once they reached a certain age, to start wearing dowdy tweed and doing good works in the parish. The world in which Pym characters live is restricted even for its time and is depicted as such within the novels, but their interactions and clashes with the world outside their immediate social circles are part of what make the books interesting and funny, and in fact these unexpected encounters tend to open up new lives and hope for the characters.