Pym’s novels rarely identify an exact year; they are more heavily textured with place than with time. Broad references to postwar “austerity” or the “welfare state” do most of the work of creating a period. “A Few Green Leaves,” set in the nineteen-seventies (and published in 1980, the year of Pym’s death), doesn’t feel terribly different from stories she set in the thirties and fifties. Seasonal cycles persist in importance over the clanging progression of historical eras; the daily trumps the dramatic. In “No Fond Return of Love,” from 1961—the last of Pym’s novels before her banishment from publication—Dulcie, who works as an indexer from her home in suburban London, notes, “People blame one for dwelling on trivialities, but life is made up of them. And if we’ve had one great sorrow or one great love, then who will blame us if we only want the trivial things?”
Religion, not faith, is central to Pym’s Britain, and it feels both essential and irrelevant. The parish is perpetually shrinking, its congregants forever aging beneath the Victorian Gothic steeple. The church’s rituals don’t set souls aloft; they keep communicants tethered to the earthly round. The bodies buried in the churchyard never seem gone to Heaven or Hell; they just seem dead. Evensong, contemplative and resigned, provides the real recurring music of Pym’s world, however fewer ears may be inclining toward it. We learn from “A Glass of Blessings” (1958) that Father Bode now “does a great deal of visiting in the afternoons. . . . If he does it in the evenings, he finds that people are looking at the television and don’t like to be interrupted.”
The novels’ humor is so sly that a reader sometimes gets halfway into a new sentence before starting to laugh at the one before. In “Jane and Prudence,” Prudence recalls “other houses where Jane and Nicholas had lived and the peculiar kind of desolation they seemed to create around them.” Given the smallness of the action, there is something mock-heroic about the comedy. (The main character of “Some Tame Gazelle” is called Belinda, perhaps for the heroine of “The Rape of the Lock.”) The cutting is gentle, but it cuts. In “No Fond Return of Love,” Mrs. Beltane is described as “an elegant, blue-haired, stiffly-moving woman of about sixty, who imagined herself to have seen better days.” Such wit depends more on telling than on showing, and Pym was one of the twentieth century’s great practitioners of the distant third-person voice. Some of the observations we hear are wistful—Miss Vereker, the aging former governess of “A Few Green Leaves,” has “nothing to complain of in her present life, except that it was not the past”—but the most devastating are comical , as when Miss Jessie Morrow, of “Crampton Hodnet,” reflects upon unrequited love “that lingers on through many years, dying sometimes and then coming back like a twinge of rheumatism in the winter, so that you feel it in your knee when you are nearing the top of a long flight of stairs.”
More than thirty years ago, Hazel Holt, Pym’s close friend and literary executor, published a biography of her. This new one by Paula Byrne, whose previous subjects have been Jane Austen, Kathleen (Kick) Kennedy, and Evelyn Waugh, is a fatter, bolder affair. Its judgments are mostly sound, but for all its heft there’s something headlong about it. The arch titles of its short chapters (“In which Miss Pym is sent away to Boarding School”) make no tonal sense. Whatever fantasy exercises Pym may have indulged in, it is hardly apt “to imagine her life as a picaresque adventure, with a Fieldingesque narrative,” as Byrne insists on doing. The dust-jacket photograph of a young Barbara Pym sitting on a rock is even cropped in such a way that she appears to be taking a pratfall.
She was born in 1913, a solicitor’s daughter. She left the town of Oswestry for boarding school near Liverpool, and in 1931 went up to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. From the time she arrived, however literary-minded she may have been, romantic pursuits occupied her more than academic ones. Photographs show Pym looking jolly and perspicacious, with charmingly crooked English teeth. Openhearted and game for experience, she pushed to slightly desperate extremes, trying on various personae, including a red-nailed young woman called Sandra, whose brazen personality Pym often herself in public and in the pages of her diary. Byrne describes a “tendency for self-punishment” and a compulsion to respond to the mild interest of young males with obsessive ardor.
Pym gave her lengthiest devotion to Henry Harvey, a handsome student of C. S. Lewis’s who had, Byrne says, an “air of superciliousness and arrogance.” Anyone who imagines that Pym was undersexed should consider that, on her first date with Harvey, “she leaned over and bit him hard on the cheek,” pre-creating Sylvia Plath’s legendary first encounter with Ted Hughes. Harvey went on to use Pym as a sexual convenience, while she typed his papers, darned his socks, and brought him flowers. He “set the pattern,” according to Byrne, “for Pym’s relationships with other men: the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt.” Instead of reciprocal intensity, Harvey promised her, in a letter, “Respect and Esteem,” in the end providing little of either.
Pym could turn even rebound romances into addictions. “Twenty hours—but perhaps twenty years of memories,” she wrote in her journal about Julian Amery, a future Member of Parliament, whom she occasionally stalked in the late nineteen-thirties. During that decade, Pym also made several trips to Germany, where she became involved with Friedbert Glück, an SS officer who treated her better than Henry Harvey had. “Thrilled” by Nazi pageantry, Byrne writes, Pym was slow to develop skepticism toward the regime, let alone the “horror and guilt” Byrne assures us she later felt. For part of the war, Pym lived in Bristol, having secured a job with the German division of the UK Censorship Office. (When applying for the position, she sharpened her language skills by rereading Glück’s letters.) In short order, she became involved with Gordon Glover, the estranged husband of her housemate. Glover quickly discarded her in a charade of noble “renunciation,” but for Pym the emotional aftermath outlasted the affair itself. Later in life, she felt humiliated by a lingering attraction to the much younger Richard Campbell (Skipper) Roberts, a privileged colonial son of the Bahamas. Roberts was a gay man who teased her with a nude photo of himself, and who once struck her cat in a moment of annoyance.
Almost all these objects of unfortunate desire eventually found unappealing versions of themselves (though maybe better than what they deserve) in Pym’s novels. In “Some Tame Gazelle,” Henry Harvey is refracted into the puffed-up Archdeacon Hoccleve, whose socks Belinda darns while still carrying a torch. Pym’s foibles also come in for fictional drubbing. The books contain several instances of stalkerish behavior by female characters, including Dulcie’s spying on a set of brothers in “No Fond Return of Love.”
Many novelists allow prominent characters from one book to make a cameo in another. Archdeacon Hoccleve turns up again in “A Glass of Blessings,” and we keep getting news of Mildred Lathbury long after her service as the heroine of “Excellent Women” (1952). Such recurrences can be a treat for a novelist’s faithful readers, or a playful pleasure for the novelist herself, new trimming for the ever-growing model railroad of a fictional œuvre. But in Pym’s case the practice may suggest something more. In “Crampton Hodnet,” the character closest to Pym herself is Barbara Bird, a lovely poetry student who turns Professor Cleveland’s head and nearly prompts him to leave his wife. A decade and a half later, Miss Bird, rude and slightly cracked, shows up at a London literary gathering in “Jane and Prudence.” We see her “pushing herself forward, knocking against a novelist of greater distinction than herself and seizing a plate of sandwiches.” Salutary self-mockery, perhaps, but also a possible instance of how Pym sometimes, according to Byrne, “played her pain for laughs.” At this point, in 1953, readers had never seen the dewy and appealing Barbara Bird; her more youthful incarnation was still in a drawer with the rest of “Crampton Hodnet.”
Pym’s healthiest gay-male attachment was to Robert (Jock) Liddell, whom she initially exasperated with her lopsided ardor for his friend Henry Harvey. But Liddell, himself a novelist, came to offer Pym actual respect and esteem, as well as affection. He encouraged her through long, fitful literary striving that was noted by false starts (Pym even tried a spy novel) and derailed by personal misadventures, war work (after the censorship-office job, Pym went to Italy with the Women’s Royal Naval Service) , and a loss of confidence caused by rejection. Liddell knew that “Some Tame Gazelle” was distinguished, but sixteen years passed between his reading of its first version and the book’s publication, in 1950, the year Pym turned thirty-seven. After the war, he de-Nazified the long-aborning manuscript (a “little swastika brooch” became a “little seed-pearl brooch”), and, in order to get the book over the finish line, he urged Pym to take “ quite seriously” Jonathan Cape’s advice to “make it more malicious.” With added piquancy, the novel’s more indefinable qualities stood in sharp relief. Upon the book’s publication, the Guardian pronounced it “delightfully amusing, but no more to be described than a delicious taste or smell.”
Pym was on her way. She could now successfully practice her art while continuing the day job she had secured as an editor of anthropological publications produced by the International African Institute. She would toil there for nearly thirty years, and although the connection between novel-writing and anthropology was hardly lost on her—field researchers abound in her books—she herself never seems to have visited Africa.
During the nineteen-forties, Pym began discovering what Byrne regards as her principal theme, “male incompetence”—something that constantly requires self-sacrificing, usually unmarried, “excellent women.” That last phrase became the title of Pym’s second novel, which, like the later “No Fond Return of Love,” makes reference to the Biblical Martha, who served Jesus behind the scenes without recognition. In “A Glass of Blessings,” Wilmet Forsyth, a tepidly married variant of the excellent woman, thinks there might be “some justification for [her] life after all” if she can succeed in setting two clergymen up with the right housekeeper. But it is Mildred Lathbury, of “Excellent Women,” who remains Pym’s most extreme and famous Martha. An active parishioner and a part-time employee at “an organization which helped impoverished gentlewomen,” Mildred admits that she is “exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens.” Still, her real complaints are against herself. She feels “useless” even as she’s being used; can see “really nothing outstanding” in herself; Speaks, in her own estimation, “fatuously.” Byrne quotes Philip Larkin’s observation that Mildred “is suffering but nobody can see why she shouldn’t suffer, like a Victorian cab horse.” (The Biblical Martha had no trouble telling Jesus off, more than once.)
Mildred understands that “practically anything may be the business of an unattached woman with no troubles of her own, who takes a kindly interest in those of her friends.” Such a posture would seem to make the excellent woman an ideal narrator. And yet, for all the praise that “Excellent Women” has received, the character of Mildred is too self-suppressive for Pym’s humor and observational powers to run at full steam. She’s one of only a few first-person narrators in Pym’s works, the novelist no doubt having realized that her own best fictive opportunities lay in the omniscient entitlements reserved for the third person. When Pym employs those, she darts in and out of a host of perspectives, retaining control over characters’ thinking and using narrative attributives (“thought Cassandra”), lest the reader make the mistake of believing it’s the author who is having the faulty insight . Pym also remains free to overrule dialogue: “’I do not think it is really our business,’ said Miss Doggett. ‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind.”