Biographer Paula Byrne’s biography of Barbara Pym (The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym) begins with a scene from a pilgrimage, not to a religious site, but to Jane Austen’s cottage in Chawton. In 1969, novelist Barbara Pym—author of six critically praised novels about the romantic machinations and mundane details of ordinary people—pressed her hand upon Austen’s writing desk, willing some of Austen’s genius to rub off on her. The image is poignant, given Pym had then been unpublished for many years, and would be, until there was a revival of interest in her work in 1977. This was thanks to an article in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) which ultimately led to the publication of several additional novels, including the Booker-nominated Quartet in Autumn (1977) and what many regard as her masterpiece, The Sweet Dove Died (1978).
The length of Byrne’s 600+ page volume may seem daunting. Yet the book’s pages turn quickly, much like reading a Pym novel, especially if the reader has a fascination with the mundane details of pre- and post-war British life. One constant throughout Byrne’s work is discussions of the type of foods Pym ate, the clothes Pym wore (nail varnish to tutorials at St. Hilda’s in Oxford, a pixie rain hat while visiting Keats’s house), and what Pym read. If you’re the type of person bored by such humble details as what really defines a person’s existence, you’re probably not much of a fan of Pym!
Unlike her mother, who kept ponies and chickens and was passionate about music, or her sister Hilary, who loved hockey and golf, Barbara Pym had two abiding passions for much of her life: books and boys. She wanted to be a novelist from a young age. She also openly created alternate personas (one, “Sandra,” was so well-known, her own family gave her a quilted evening bag with Sandra embroidered upon it as a gift) to separate her wild and unfettered sex life from her staider Barbara persona. It is one of the great ironies of the publishing industry that publishers would reject Barbara Pym for so many years—an unmarried woman who lost her virginity young in university and chased married and gay men—as insufficiently “swinging’” for the 60s.
However, this focus on literature and ordinary relationships is perhaps the crux of why Pym struggled to find a wider audience. Her books are not romances, mysteries, yet lack the experimental nature or social commentary of what intellectuals expect of so-called literary fiction. The literary podcast Backlisted, when praising another of her greatest novels (1952’s Excellent Women) called Pym un-blurbable. Pym’s books are neither driven by plot nor even romantic triangles very much (although there are many deeply unsatisfied married, unfaithful people and singletons in her works). Pym’s books are about unappreciated, angst-ridden people working dull jobs living in cheap flats with shared bathrooms, still yearning for more, for the transcendent. Or her characters obsess about the trivial while working for the Church of England or great universities. Pym’s subtlety in dealing with the limits of her character’s exterior and interior lives are one of the reasons she is so often compared with Austen, of course, and also why both authors are often criticized for leaving politics and sweeping themes out of their novels.
Pym’s own politics, though, make up the most disturbing portion of this biography. Although she later patriotically worked for the Wrens (enlisting in service in part to forget about being abandoned by a married man), in the 1930s she had an extended fling with a German Nazi. While antisemitism runs deep in British culture of the pre-and even postwar period (as any cursory reading of Nancy Mitford, Agatha Christie, or Georgette Heyer will reveal), not everyone dated a German Nazi and attended Hitler’s rallies before the war like Pym.
Byrne attributes this blindness to Pym’s romantic fascination with a man and German high culture, but this explanation is unlikely to satisfy all readers. Pym is praised for her frank treatment of gay relationships long before her contemporaries, but given these relationships are as stale and unfulfilling as her heterosexual ones, it’s always a question if Pym is calling for greater tolerance or just suggesting that human beings can’t communicate. There’s also a super-weird interlude where Barbara and her sister Hilary basically stalked a gay male couple, finding out all they could about the two of them, giving the two gentlemen weird pet animal names. It’s not unlike how some people creep a stranger’s social media out of curiosity, but in a far more intrusive way (i.e., legwork and observation were involved).
However, given that this was a woman who wrote about caterpillars being found in cauliflower cheese and elderly women with a passionate hatred of all birds, perhaps this bit of eccentricity isn’t a total surprise.