This “most underrated writer of the century”, i.e. the last century, was discarded by publishers much to her dismay in the 1960s as too prim and twee. One may refer in jest to vicarage tea parties, but Pym did indeed write about them both in jest and in deadly earnest. However in the 1970s she received a boost when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil (a certain ‘Lord Edgar Ravenswood’ teaches English at Oxford in Jane and Prudence) registered their high opinion of her in the Times Literary Supplement on 21-Jan-77 and soon Macmillan and, in the USA, EP Dutton were starting to reprint her books and bring out new ones. However she died of breast cancer in 1980 before she could enjoy a second wave of success. Like spinsters from one of her own novels, she retired to live with her sister Hilary in a little village, Finstock, outside Oxford, where both are buried. Following Barbara’s death at 66, her sister inaugurated a Barbara Pym collection at St Hilda’s, Oxford, Barbara’s former college. There is a Barbara Pym Society which arranges walking tours.


It is not enough to describe Pym as a comic novelist. She is sad in at least equal measure. An early critic of DH Lawrence mentioned that “all his horses are either mares or stallions” and this is equally true of Pym. After some disconcerting episode or other, and there are many, a discussion follows of men and how they need to eat meat or be admired or have everything done for them. They are essentially furniture that ring the world of women in obtuse but innocent fashion. In Jane and Prudence, Fabian needs to have a female companion pushed his way; he needs help disposing of the effects of his late wife; when this potential fiancée is repulsed by another who spills a cup of tea over her rival, Fabian needs help to break with the former (he is not good with writing letters); he needs prompting by the latter to buy her a cheap trinket; and when we take our leave of him, he is so alarmed by the prospect of living with the second wife, that he is clearly going to need a lot of help marrying her.


“Poor Constance was left alone a great deal,” said Miss Doggett. “In many ways, of course, Mr Driver is a very charming man. They say, though, that men only want one thing ― that’s the truth of the matter.” Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing, but had forgotten for the moment what it was.[1]


It is the women who are observed intimately, directly and indirectly, in sidelong fashion, and who observe each other. Many are unmarried, the Bridget Joneses of their day. So far so good. In relation to the strangely immobile men, one gets a ‘pash,’[2] and then progresses through ‘admiration’ to devotion and marriage. Or rather, not to marriage. In the main, people do not die or give birth or marry in the novels of Barbara Pym. And this all takes place within the machinery of the Anglican Church, for these are highly ecclesiastical settings. The novels seem to have very little to do with Christianity, but Churchianity is quite another matter, of consuming interest if all your readers are also readers of John Betjeman.


However, this is a very hierarchal world and one comes to feel that much of this ecclesiastical structure ― the mechanisation of rôles ― is needed because the characters are basically a set of quite dull people. This is not their fault. The books are for the most part set firmly in the 1950s. The local member of Parliament holds a seat which has been in the family for three generations ― our “beloved Member” ― and well-off but entirely ineffectual people have jobs in the City which scarcely require their presence. The genteel spinsterhood of the village comes next layer down, aspiring to dignity and to trapping a man. Below this, people work ― always at dull jobs ― in banks or as piano-tuners. And the whole edifice is supported by an army of women who shop, cook, clean and keep house (“do”). The male working class is invisible, but everything of any practical utility whatever is done by a servant, female working class. As is appropriate in such a highly layered society, people vacillate between slightly higher, candle- and incense-laden churches and slightly lower ones – Chapel. The distinctions are entirely social.


Pym was originally inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, yet we are quite a few IQ points short of the brilliant conversation between typical Huxley characters. The hierarchy is stifling, oppressive, the characters limited. But if Pym is writing about the limitations of people, she is able to do so in a brilliant way. Like all authors, she first trains you to pay attention to what she is saying in her sly, unpausing manner, in which adverbs are rolled to sentence ends like dice always loaded on six.


I would locate her in the general vicinity of Ivy Compton Burnett. True, her characters are not little matchstick men, but they are puppets. The slight narratives explore the world from the point of view of the single woman, especially within the ecclesiastical hamster cage. The effort to read Pym reduces slightly with successive novels. I suspect that enthusiasm for her art burns most brightly in those who share her interest in high Anglicanism, the rituals of village life, 17th-century English poetry, quoted passim, Lyons Corner Shops[3] and the hierarchical arcana of the 1950s. Somehow all of this seems much more remote than Chaucer, Hildegard of Bingen or Hardy. The halo of nostalgic escapism around the fiction never seems quite to disperse and may have been there from the beginning.

[1] Jane and Prudence, Harper and Row (Perennial Library, 1982, p. 70.

[2] I haven’t come across this word in Pym but it belongs there.

[3] Which even I remember.