Archive

Letters

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.

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