I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Pym novels lately, which is unusual as I read them all years ago and hardly ever pick up a book a second time. But Pym is one of those novelists whose voice is so particular and whose situations are so many variations on the same theme that I find I can read them again with the delight undiminished as if for the first time. I had completely forgotten the plots, because in a Pym novel, they are the least important factor. Funnily enough the ability to entertain and be forgotten dogged Pym over the course of her writing career. She was a moderately successful author in the 40s and 50s but suffered a spectacular fall from literary grace in the 60s and 70s when her work was considered old-fashioned and unpopular. After 16 years of what she described as ‘the wilderness’, submitting her work to publishing houses only to be regularly rejected, an astonishing thing happened: in 1977, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Phillip Larkin described her as one of Britain’s most underrated novelists and overnight her fortunes changed. The book she had been unsuccessfully trying to publish, Quartet in Autumn, appeared with Macmillan and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Sadly, she died not long afterwards, but it is an intriguing story of the trials and tribulations of publishing, and one that can be interpreted as both a reassurance and a warning to all writers about the fickleness of both critical and commercial popularity.
To my mind, calling Pym’s work old-fashioned is entirely beside the point. Her interest lies in the kind of characters who are always out of synch with the modern world, always a little eccentric and out of step, and who are all the more endearing for it. She moved in the same social circles for all her books: the clergy, academics, middle-aged women who try not to be romantic because they know they are fundamentally miscast in the role but who cannot quite resist the lure. I know of no other writer who combines such dramatis personae but it really works with Pym. Thinking it over, I can see a fundamental compatibility between religion, academics and romance, as all three share a profound concern with spiritual value. All three have their eye firmly fixed on higher things, on a kind of purpose beyond the self, a desire to serve a greater cause, even if in doing so the hope lingers that a kind of saintly nobility may be conferred on them. Pym’s characters are beautifully split within themselves between the desire to be good and the slightly shameful temptation to have their more earthy, material appetites satisfied. What makes them so sympathetic is their self-awareness of both inclinations and the belief that the contradiction makes them faintly ludicrous. Pym’s characters constantly laugh at themselves, which is one reason why they are a delight to read. At the same time that preoccupation with goodness is a very serious one, and one that is rarely tackled with such uncloying sincerity and compassion. To truly want to be good is already to be beyond the normal run of humanity, but Pym’s characters are blind to themselves in this respect, possessing as they do a very genuine humility. They are, in other words, people your heart goes out to, living so lightly, so undemandingly, awkwardly conscious of their flaws and fallibility but using that awareness for comedy, not tragedy.
There’s a deep, rich vein concerned with the yearnings of humanity in Pym, but it is one that is repeatedly undercut by a no-nonsense British austerity. Pym’s glory years of writing were in the period after the Second World War when England was a weary place, tired of rationing and keeping a stiff upper lip. And so the interest in religious fervour takes place within the down-to-earth Anglican church, with the main gossipy alarm focused on vicars who might dare to go over to Rome. The romance is always played out in the imaginations of women who know they are committed to spend their days at church jumble sales or arranging flowers, and the academics are all anthropologists, a group who deflate the emotion from the grand events of birth, marriage and death and describe them in terms of laws and rituals instead. For all the seeming seriousness of her concerns, Barbara Pym is a writer without a message. Her work is all on the surface, her interest is in the trivial and the mundane and its ability to carry us over anything that might, in another light, look like a crisis. In her lapses, she can read like a slightly antiseptic Mills and Boon, particularly towards the end of her novels when she strains for an optimistic, happy ending for her tweedy and neglected female characters. But none of it ever matters because her writing is just so funny. She is a comic genius in the same vein as P. G. Wodehouse and E. F. Benson, an intrinsically funny writer who builds up the dialogue and the detail in a scene in a way that combines ascerbic wit, irony and the charm of the incongruous. Nothing really happens in her works, and yet I never want them to end.
The two novels I’ve just read – Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings – are almost companion pieces as they have characters in common. In Excellent Women, mousy young spinster and ex-vicar’s daughter, Mildred, finds herself in involved with a couple who move into the flat above her own. The Napiers are quite unlike the kind of people she usually meets. Rockingham (Rocky) is handsome and charming and recently returned from breaking all the WREN’s hearts over in Italy, whilst his wife, Helena, is a prickly anthropologist who has no interest in domesticity and a crush on her academic research partner, Everard Bone. Their stormy relationship becomes an object of fascination to Mildred who falls in love with Rocky despite her better intentions. In A Glass of Blessings, Wilmet Forsyth is ostensibly a happily married woman with a nice house and a steady husband, but she lacks any sense of purpose to her life and longs to be needed somewhere, by someone. In her youth, Wilmet was one of the WRENs charmed by Rocky Napier, and is about to become entangled in the life of another such man (for Pym’s novels always contain handsome, misleading cads) the feckless Piers Longridge, who teaches evening classes in French and Portuguese, which we can read as a sign of his inability to hold down a proper job. Summarizing Pym’s works is never satisfactory as it makes her sound like a cheap romantic novelist and she is far more than that. The veneer of romance, and the quaint settings of her novels doubtless contributed to her lack of popularity in the violent, druggy years of the sixties, but this is one occasion when comparisons to Jane Austen are not wholly misplaced. She is the same era as Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Bowen, but is by far the most comic, light-hearted author of that bunch. What remains with the reader afterwards is the Austen-esque plausibility that life is fundamentally all right and worth living, even if, or especially if, it is simple and quiet and good. It’s not a literary message, but it’s a lovingly humane one.