Barbara Pym is one of my favourite authors so I’m very glad that Virago has started reprinting her books. After a successful career in the 40s & 50s, she was out of fashion for most of the 60s & 70s until Philip Larkin & Lord David Cecil named her as an unfairly neglected author in a newspaper article & her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was published & shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novels came back into print & after her death in 1980, unpublished work, diaries & a biography by her friend & literary executor, Hazel Holt, was published. Virago has so far reprinted Excellent Women, Jane & Prudence, A Glass of Blessings, No Fond Return of Love, & Some Tame Gazelle. Less Than Angels is coming out in a couple of months. It seems Barbara Pym’s time has come around again. I think it’s because of this renewed interest in middlebrow fiction. Publishers like Persephone, Virago, Greyladies, Capuchin Classics & Vintage have been reprinting authors who were popular in the 30s & 40s but then faded from view. The strengths of these novels are the emphasis on the domestic, the involving plots, the characters & the details of lives that are different enough from ours to be fascinating.
I’ve just reread Jane & Prudence, one of my favourite Pyms. I sat down yesterday afternoon looking for a change from Queen Victoria, & before I knew it I was deep into the story & up to the scene where Jane, a scatty, not very successful vicar’s wife, is standing in a department store looking longingly at the terrines of foie gras & asking a resplendent shopman in uniform how a vicar’s wife can possibly afford such luxuries? Of course, the answer is that she can’t, so she goes off to have lunch with her friend Prudence instead. Barbara Pym’s humour is in such moments. She shows us the silly moments of ordinary life, especially in characters like Jane, who’s fond of quoting bits of 17th century poetry to herself & quite unconcerned that her housekeeping skills are practically non-existent. Prudence is a former student of Jane’s, almost thirty, & fond of unsuitable love affairs which really don’t disturb her emotions very much at all. Jane & her family have moved to a country parish & she decides that there are several eligible men suitable for Prudence so she decides to do a little matchmaking.
Pym’s men are often unsatisfactory, actually, they always are. I can’t think of one man in any of the books who she isn’t poking fun at. That’s what is so attractive & funny about her books. Her women are often the neglected ones, the spinsters, the widows, the unattractive, “holy fowl” as Helena Napier describes them in Excellent Women. But, their lives are as happy & fulfilled, sometimes more so than their married sisters. Belinda & Harriet Bede in Some Tame Gazelle are happy spinsters, each rejecting truly awful marriage proposals. At the end of the book, Belinda is relieved that their lives will go on as always. She will mildly love Archdeacon Hoccleve as she has for the last 30 years & Harriet will have a new curate to fuss over, “…they would hardly realize the difference, except that he was rather Italian-looking & had had a nervous breakdown.” I won’t go on, I could quote something from nearly every book.
Barbara Pym is an author I can reread with pleasure & used to listen to on audio. Chivers Audio (now BBC Audio) recorded audio books of all the Pyms on cassette, but they’ve long since been withdrawn from my library. When I read the books now, I hear Susan Jameson reading A Glass of Blessings, Julia McKenzie reading Some Tame Gazelle & Juliet Stevenson reading Excellent Women. I hope they release them on CD as part of the Classics on CD range. I love audio books, I always have one on the go in the car. A subject for another post.