Sunday 25 February 2018

Pym centenary brings a quiet, necessary revival

As four of Barbara Pym's books are rereleased, Anne Marie Scanlon explores the world of the 'heroine spinster'

Anne Marie Scanlon

It is very rare these days that any sort of anniversary goes unmarked. Last month, publishing house Bello celebrated the centenary of author Barbara Pym's birth by quietly rereleasing four of her novels. Fans of the author would probably agree it's what she would have wanted. Pym's books celebrate the quiet and ordinary. Her world is the world of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, the world of classic Agatha Christie (without the bloodshed), the quiet, stoic middle-class world of vicars, church bazaars and 'gentlewomen' on their uppers, a world where one quite simply didn't make a fuss.

Pym was born on June 2, 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire, the eldest daughter of Frederic and Irena Pym. Her younger sister Hilary was born three years later and the pair would remain close for the rest of their lives. Irena Pym was the assistant organist at the local parish church and the Anglican clergy would become one of the consistent themes of Pym's novels, the first of which she wrote aged 16.

Six years later, in 1935 at the age of 22, Pym completed what would become her first published novel Some Tame Gazelle. As befits a character in one of her own books, Pym's road to literary success was one of relentless persistence in the face of rejection.

She periodically submitted Some Tame Gazelle to publishers and endlessly rewrote and edited the novel as it was returned to her.

Fifteen years after she had first finished it, Some Tame Gazelle was finally published by Jonathan Cape in 1950.

By this time, Pym had worked for the Censorship Department during the Second World War and had gone on to a job in the International African Institute in London as Assistant Editor of their scholarly journal Africa. The African Institute helped provide Pym with one of her other recurring characters – the analytical anthropologist.

After her first novel was finally published, Pym wrote five more over the next decade. In 1963, she submitted An Unsuitable Attachment to Cape, which rejected it as being out of step with the times. A further 20 publishers turned the novel down.

Despite what to most would be an unsurpassable setback, Pym kept writing and in January 1977 her career was unexpectedly revived when the poet Philip Larkin told The Times Literary Supplement that Pym was "the most underrated novelist of the century". Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was picked up by the publisher Macmillan in the same year and shortlisted for a Booker Prize. Two further novels, The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves, were published in 1978 and 1980 respectively.

Unfortunately Pym didn't have much time to enjoy her second act as she died of breast cancer in 1980 – An Unsuitable Attachment was then published posthumously in 1982.

Pym never married and indeed began describing herself as a spinster when she was still in her early 20s.

While her works are classed as social comedies and remembered for being absolutely saturated with Anglican clergymen, it is her portrayal of single women of a 'certain age' that show both her detail and range of character. The 'Spinster' is rarely the heroine in fiction. She is usually a comic device, an old maid, a fusspot, a frustrated old biddy, a woman obsessed by cats – she is a stock character with no inner life comparable to the young woman in search of love. What Pym does, and does so well, is to remind the reader that human beings, even women of a 'certain age' never stop yearning for some sort of connection. Yes, Pym delivers to us a few cat-obsessed older ladies and fusspots, but she also writes about women (and men) who are lonely and cannot articulate, even to themselves, what their needs are.

Pym's novels fall somewhere, both in time and content, between Jane Austen and Jilly Cooper and remind us that some things never change. In An Unsuitable Attachment, 25-year-old Penelope Grandison fears being left on the shelf and moans to her older, married sister, Sophia Ainger, that "men seem to prefer young girls of eighteen". Sophia, a vicar's wife and the grand old age of 30 replies, "but there have always been girls of 18n, even in my day". Sophia, even though a married lady, is really a spinster at heart and is obsessed by the monstrous Faustina, her child-substitute cat, a truly memorable fictional animal.

So far Pym's novels have escaped the Sunday night costume drama slot, even though they are as comforting and cosy as the endless tea and scones the nice ladies on the parish councils produce.

But don't wait for the TV adaptation, make yourself a nice pot of tea, butter some scones and discover the nice quiet world of Barbara Pym.

Irish Independent

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