‘I discovered Barbara Pym in my sophomore year of college, thanks to a friend who gave me her 1958 novel, A Glass of Blessings. I loved the book for its understated humor, the way its heroine, Wilmet, mocks her own lack of direction as she drifts through a world divided into church jumble sales, dull sherry parties, and a secret crush on a man who turns out to have a live-in “friend” named Keith. Though the copy was a reprint, I still thought we’d stumbled onto some lost treasure, a forgotten library gem. Soon enough I realized that what I’d stumbled onto was a gigantic literary bandwagon. In 1985, everybody seemed to be reading Barbara Pym, though she herself had been dead for several years.
‘Of course, people had different reactions to her. There were readers like me who became annoyingly obsessed with her novels; even our vocabulary reflected it. Whatever slang we’d been speaking before Barbara Pym, we quit using it and started tossing around tweedy words like unpleasantness and cloakroom. Against the advice of our teachers, we took to using the pronoun one as in “One regrets the unpleasantness in the cloakroom.” Less-besotted readers enjoyed Barbara Pym but lumped her in with Miss Read and other writers of “gentle fiction,” a condescending term if there ever was one.
‘Still others couldn’t see any attraction at all in Pym’s stories about women who dote on men and men who accept feminine devotion as their due. They considered her work depressing (men, she said herself, often found it so), uneventful, or simply shallow. A professor of mine said that he found her fiction (he’d read only one novel) “nothing but fluff.” How, he asked, could John Updike have praised her so highly? …
‘Excellent Women appeared in 1952, followed by Jane and Prudence, Less than Angels, A Glass of Blessings, and No Fond Return of Love. These novels of the 1950s (she finished the last by 1960) all share some elements: the distinctive Pym irony, the landscape of London with its crowded lunchrooms and crippled churches, and her recognizable character types. Some of these types include the “splendid” women who know how to deal with life’s pivotal events: “birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather.” Or the maddeningly or perhaps endearingly vain men, whether priests or anthropologists, who imagine that any woman should be glad to do their laundry and proofread their manuscripts. …
‘For me, raised on the dreary fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, Barbara Pym’s affectionate irony was a revolution of its own. Though I never successfully applied it to my own writing, it colored the way I looked at life, helping me find a way out of personal pain, or at least giving me hints of a way. Now I see less comedy and more essential sadness in even the brightest of her novels—a feminine longing that underlies all the jokes about dutiful women, charming but vain men, tribalized anthropologists, high-minded priests. I also see the strengthening effects of love and forgiveness upon comedy. If the literary archdeacons of her time couldn’t appreciate it, well . . . one does see the irony in that.’ — Betty Smartt Carter, First Things
The Barbara Pym Society of North America
‘The novels of Barbara Pym’
‘Philip Hensher toasts the novelist Barbara Pym’
‘Marvelous Spinster Barbara Pym At 100’
‘Celebrating Barbara Pym’
‘Patron Saint of Quiet Lives: A Look2 Essay on Barbara Pym’
‘Barbara Pym fans converge on Boston’
‘The Blagger’s Guide To: Barbara Pym’
Barbara Pym’s Desert Island Discs
‘Pride and Perseverance’
‘Barbara Pym: The Other Jane Austen’
Barbara Pym Doll Miniature Art Collectible
‘“Allegra! … Isn’t that lovely?” Names in Barbara Pym’s novels’
Buy ‘A Glass of Blessings’
The Legacy of Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym’s correspondence with her publishers
Finding a Voice
by Barbara Pym
I’ve sometimes wondered whether novelists like to be remembered for what they’ve said or because they’ve said it in their own particular way—in their own distinctive voice. But how do you acquire your own voice or indeed any kind of voice? Does it come about as inevitably as your height or the colour of your eyes or do you develop it deliberately, perhaps in imitation of a writer you admire?
I’ve been trying to write novels, with many ups and downs, over more than forty years. I started as a schoolgirl, when I used to contribute to the school magazine—mostly parodies, conscious even then of other people’s styles. Then in 1929, when I was sixteen, I discovered Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow. I came across this sophisticated masterpiece in the wilds of Shropshire, through that marvellous institution Boots’ Library, now, alas, as much of a period memory as the seven and sixpenny hardback novel. I was a keen reader of all kinds of modern fiction, and more than anything else I read at that time Crome Yellow made me want to be a novelist myself. I don’t suppose for a moment that I appreciated the book’s finer satirical points, but it seemed to me funnier than anything I had read before, and the idea of writing about a group of people in a certain situation—in this case upper-class intellectuals in a country house—immediately attracted me, so I decided that I wanted to write a novel like Crome Yellow.
And so my first novel—unpublished, of course—was started in that same year, 1929. It was called Young Men in Fancy Dress and was about a group of “Bohemians”—I must put that word in quotes—who were, in my view, young men living in Chelsea, a district of which I knew nothing at that time. The hero wanted to be a novelist and, as one of the characters put it, “If you want to be a proper novelist, you must get to like town and develop a passion for Chelsea.”
Reading the manuscript again, I detect almost nothing in it of my mature style of writing, except that the Bohemian young men aren’t taken entirely seriously, and that there’s a lot of detail—clothes, makes of cars, golf, and drinks (especially descriptions of cocktails—which . I’d certainly never tasted). I’ve always liked detail—in fact my love of triviality has been criticised—so perhaps that was something I developed early. And obviously at that time I read a lot—if a bit indiscriminately. In this early novel all the “best” or at least the most fashionable names are dropped, from Swinburne and Rupert Brooke to D. H. Lawrence and Beverley Nichols.
When I was eighteen, I went up to Oxford to read English. Most aspiring novelists write at the University, but I didn’t, though I did start to write something in my third year, a description of a man who meant a lot to me. I tore it up, but this person did appear later in a very different guise as one of my best comic male characters. There was nothing comic to me about him at the time, but memory is a great transformer of pain into amusement. And at Oxford, as well as English Literature, I went on reading modern novelists.
I particularly enjoyed the works of “Elizabeth”, the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Such novels as The Enchanted April and The Pastor’s Wife were a revelation in their wit and delicate irony, and the dry, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between men and women which touched some echoing chord in me at that time. I was learning; these novels seemed more appropriate to use as models than Crome Yellow—perhaps even the kind of thing I might try to write myself.
It must also have been about this time—still in the 1930s—that I was introduced to the poems of John Betjeman. His glorifying of ordinary things and buildings and his subtle appreciation of different kinds of churches and churchmanship made an immediate appeal to me. Another author I came across at this time was Ivy Compton-Burnett—I think More Women than Men, her novel about a girls’ school, was the first I read; then A House and Its Head, one of her more typical family chronicles. Of course I couldn’t help being influenced by her dialogue, that precise, formal conversation which seemed so stilted when I first read it— though when I got used to it, a friend and I took to writing to each other entirely in that style. Another book we imitated was Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, a fantasy, written with all the humour and pathos of her poems.
So all the writers I’ve mentioned played some part in forming my own literary style. But of course I’d also been reading the classics, especially Jane Austen and Trollope. Critics discussing my work sometimes tentatively mention these great names, mainly, I think, because I tend to write about the same kind of people and society as they did, although, of course, the ones I write about live in the twentieth century. But what novelist of today would dare to claim that she was influenced by such masters of our craft? Certainly all who read and love Jane Austen may try to write with the same economy of language, even try to look at their characters with her kind of detachment, but that is as far as any “influence” could go.
The concept of “detachment” reminds me of the methods of the anthropologist, who studies societies in this way. The joke definition of anthropology as “the study of man embracing woman” might therefore seem peculiarly applicable to the novelist. After the war, I got a job at the International African Institute in London. I was mostly engaged in editorial work, smoothing out the written results of other people’s researches, but I learned more than that in the process. I learned how it was possible and even essential to cultivate an attitude of detachment towards life and people, and how the novelist could even do “field- work” as the anthropologist did. And I also met a great many people of a type I hadn’t met before. The result of all this was a novel called Less Than Angels, which is about anthropologists working at a research centre in London, and also the suburban background of Deirdre, one of the heroines, and her life with her mother and aunt. There’s a little church life in it too, so that it could be said to be a mixture of all the worlds I had experience of. I felt in this novel that I was breaking new ground by venturing into the academic scene, although in many ways that isn’t unlike the worlds of the village and parish I’d written about up to then.
I admire those people who can produce a new book regularly every year. I’ve found it more difficult as time goes on. I suppose it’s easy for anyone to produce their first novel—it’s all there inside you and only needs to be written down. Also a second and third may be just under the surface and comparatively easy to dig out. After that it becomes more difficult, unless you’re prepared to go on writing exactly the same book with only slight variations, over and over again. And people are always very ready to tell you anecdotes from their own experience—which, in their opinion, would be just the thing for one of your novels. Read- ers who don’t like your kind of story sometimes suggest plots or subjects for you in the hope that you may write something different. And sometimes, especially when things aren’t going well, it’s tempting to give it a try.
Barbara Pym A Glass of Blessings
‘Barbara Pym’s early novel takes us into 1950s England, where life revolved around the village green and the local church—as seen through the funny, engaging, yearning eyes of a restless housewife
‘Wilmet Forsyth is bored. Bored with the everyday routine of her provincial village life. Bored with teatimes filled with local gossip. Bored with her husband, Rodney, a military man who dotes on her. But on her thirty-third birthday, Wilmet’s conventional life takes a turn when she runs into the handsome brother of her close friend.
‘Attractive and enigmatic, Piers Longridge is a mystery Wilmet is determined to solve. Rather than settling down, he lived in Portugal, then returned to England for a series of odd jobs. Driven by a fantasy of romance, the sheltered, naïve Englishwoman sets out to seduce Piers—only to discover that he isn’t the man she thinks he is.
‘As cozy as sharing a cup of tea with an old friend, A Glass of Blessings explores timeless themes of sex, marriage, religion, and friendship while exposing our flaws and foibles with wit, compassion, and a generous helping of love.’ — Open Road
I SUPPOSE IT MUST have been the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side aisles behind me. It sounded shrill and particularly urgent against the music of the organ, and it was probably because I had never before heard a telephone ringing in church that my thoughts were immediately distracted, so that I found myself wondering where it could be and whether anyone would answer it. I imagined the little bent woman in the peacock blue hat who acted as verger going into thevestry and picking up the receiver gingerly, if only to put an end to the loudunsuitable ringing. She might say that Father Thames was engaged at the moment or not available; but surely the caller ought to have known that, for it was St Luke’s day, the patronal festival of the church, and this lunchtime Mass was one of the services held for people who worked in the offices near by or perhaps for the idle ones like myself who had been too lazy to get up for an earlier service.
The ringing soon stopped, but I was still wondering who the caller could have been, and finally decided on one of Father Thames’s wealthy elderly female friends inviting him to luncheon or dinner. Then a different bell began to ring and I tried to collect my thoughts, ashamed that they should have wandered so far from the service. I closed my eyes and prayed for myself, on this my thirty-third birthday, for my husband Rodney, my mother-in-law Sybil, and a vague collection of friends who always seemed to need praying for. At the last minute I remembered to pray for a new assistant priest to be sent to us, for Father Thames had urged us in the parish magazine to do this. When I opened my eyes again I could not help looking quickly at the side aisle where I had caught a glimpse of the man who looked like Piers Longridge, the brother of my great friend Rowena Talbot.
She usually spoke of him as ‘poor Piers’, for there was something vaguely unsatisfactory about him. At thirty-five he had had too many jobs and his early brilliance seemed to have come to nothing. It was also held against him that he had not yet married. I wondered what could have brought him to St Luke’s at lunchtime. I remembered Rowena telling me that he had recently obtained work as a proof-reader to a firm of printers specializing in the production of learned books, but I had understood that it was somewhere in the city. I did not know him very well and had seen very little of him recently; probably he was one of those people who go into churches to look at the architecture and stay for a service out of curiosity. I stole another quick look at him. In novels, or perhaps more often in parish magazine stories, one sometimes reads descriptions of ‘a lonely figure kneeling at the back of the church, his head bowed in prayer’, but Piers was gazing about him in an inquisitive interested way. I realized again how good looking he was, with his aquiline features and fair hair, and I wondered if I should have a chance to speak to him after the service was over.
When this moment came, Father Thames, a tall scraggy old man with thick white hair and a beaky nose, was standing by the door, talking in his rather too loud social voice to various individuals — calling out to a young man to keep in touch — while others slipped past him on the way back to their offices, perhaps calculating whether they would have time for a quick lunch or a cup of coffee before returning to work.
Although I had quite often been to his church, which was near where I lived, Father Thames and I had not yet spoken to each other. Today, as I approached him, I had the feeling that he would say something; but rather to my surprise, for I had not prepared any opening sentence, I was the one to speak first. And what I said was really rather unsuitable.
‘How strange to hear a telephone ringing in church! I don’t think I ever have before,’ I began and then stopped, wondering how he would take it.
He threw back his head, almost as if he were about to laugh. ‘Have you not?’ he said. ‘Oh, it is always ringing here, although we have another one at the clergy house, of course. Usually it’s business, but just occasionally a kind friend may be inviting me to luncheon or something of the sort. People are so kind!’
So it could have been as I had imagined. But there were two priests at the clergy house. Were the invitations always for Father Thames and never for mild dumpy little Father Bode, with his round spectacled face and slightly common voice, who always seemed to be the sub-deacon at High Mass and who had once read the wrong lesson at a carol service? I was sure that Father Bode was equally worthy of eating smoked salmon and grouse or whatever luncheon the hostesses might care to provide. Then it occurred to me that he might well be the kind of person who would prefer tinned salmon, though I was ashamed of the unworthy thought for I knew him to be a good man.
‘As a matter of fact that telephone call was about Father Ransome, our new assistant priest,’ Father Thames continued. ‘That much Mrs Spooner was able to tell me after the service. In fact, from what I understood her to say it may even have been Ransome himself on the telephone, but she was understandably a little flustered.’
I wondered if it was a good omen that the new assistant priest should have telephoned in the middle of a service or if it showed some lack of something.
p.s. Hey. As predicted, I have escaped to Disneyland Paris for the day. Hence, I’m not here. Please use your local day to absorb this book by the unimpeachable writer/stylist Barbara Pym. Thanks. I’ll be back with the blog and the p.s. tomorrow.