Barbara Pym (1913-1980)

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born to Frederic Crampton Pym, a solicitor, and Irena Spenser Pym (née Thomas) on 2 June 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire, on the Welsh border. Barbara's sister Hilary was born there in 1916. Since Irena Pym was assistant organist at the parish church of St. Oswald, entertaining vicars and curates became part of Pym family life, and would later provide Barbara with some of her most enduring and endearing characters. At the age of sixteen, inspired by Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, Barbara attempted her first novel, Young Men in Fancy Dress, an unpublished work that is now housed in the Pym Archives at the Bodleian Library. Her dedication in the manuscript reads: 'To H.D.M.G., who kindly informed me that I had the making of a style of my own.'

In 1931, Barbara entered St Hilda's College, Oxford. Excerpts from her notebooks and detailed diaries, published as A Very Private Eye, document her Oxford years. It was here that Barbara read English literature, fell in love, and made lifelong friends who would later influence and encourage her literary career.

After earning her second-class honours degree in English Literature, Barbara returned to Oswestry where she began writing Some Tame Gazelle, about two fiftyish spinsters. Remarkably, she projected herself and Hilary thirty years into the future, wove many of her Oxford friends into the story, and refined the Pym style, marked by wit, humour and delightful details of her characters' everyday lives. She completed this first novel in 1935 when she was only 22 and periodically submitted it to publishers, but without initial success. Barbara started other stories and novels in the 1930s, notably Crampton Hodnet, which was published posthumously.

When war overtook Europe in 1940, Barbara was assigned to the Censorship office at Bristol and then, after a painful romance with Gordon Glover, decided to join the Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service, WRNS). In 1944, she was posted to Naples until the end of the war. She continued writing her diaries and notebooks, gathering material for her novels – one of the naval officers she knew in Naples became the inspiration for Rocky Napier in Excellent Women.



After the war, Barbara took a job at the International African Institute in London, and soon became the assistant editor for the journal Africa. Here the world of anthropologists provided rich and amusing fodder for Barbara's comedic pen. During this time, Barbara lived with her sister Hilary, who was with the BBC, in a Pimlico flat where she wrote stories for women's magazines, but without success. More significantly, she revised Some Tame Gazelle and submitted it to the publisher Jonathan Cape in 1949. To her delight it was accepted and published in 1950, to favourable reviews. Her career as a published writer was launched.

From then on every few years a new Pym novel was produced. Excellent Women was published by Cape in 1952, followed the next year by Jane and Prudence. 1955 saw the publication of Less Than Angels, A Glass of Blessings came out in 1958, and No Fond Return of Love appeared in 1961. To scholars and critics, these six early novels form the Barbara Pym canon, a body of work that establishes her unique style and presages her lasting importance. In them, she probes the human condition, seen through the prism of such quotidian events as jumble sales and walks in the woods. Her characters are unassuming people leading unremarkable lives; Pym became the chronicler of quiet lives.  As Mildred Lathbury, the first-person narrator of Excellent Women observes, 'After all, life was like that for most of us—the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.'

With the Vicar and Excellent Women at a church bazaar

In 1963, after thirteen years of modest success as a writer, Barbara submitted An Unsuitable Attachment to Jonathan Cape, her publisher; to her dismay, it was rejected as being out of step with the times. This was, of course, a severe blow. She tried sending the manuscript to other publishers, only to have it rejected. She revised it, but still the rejection letters came. In all, twenty publishers refused to publish her latest novel.

This devastating experience plunged Barbara Pym into what she and her friends would ruefully term 'the wilderness,' a literary limbo from which it appeared she would never emerge. 'I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again....' she wrote in 1970. But despite the bleak future, she continued to write. Drawing on her relationship, at the age of forty-nine, with a thirty-two-year-old gay antiques dealer, Barbara started writing The Sweet Dove Died, a darker novel than her previous works that brings to life the incomparable Leonora Eyre, who seeks to possess a younger man. It, too, was rejected by several publishers in the late sixties and early seventies.

Misfortune of another kind struck Barbara in 1971, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy; in 1974 she suffered a minor stroke. She then retired from the Institute and went to live with Hilary in a cottage in Finstock, Oxfordshire. Still writing, Barbara turned her energies toward a new novel inspired by her recent retirement. The story of four insignificant office workers on the verge of retirement became Quartet in Autumn, darker still than The Sweet Dove Died but unmistakably Pym. Inexplicably, Jonathan Cape rejected the book in 1976, as did another publisher.

A few months later her fortunes changed with startling suddenness. In the 21 January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym was twice named (by Philip Larkin, shown at left visiting her in Finstock, and Lord David Cecil) as 'the most underrated novelist of the century.' With astonishing speed, she emerged from 'the wilderness' after sixteen years of obscurity, to almost instant fame and recognition.



At the Booker Prize dinner, November 1977

Macmillan accepted Quartet in Autumn for publication in 1977 and it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In 1978, Macmillan published The Sweet Dove Died; both new novels drew critical acclaim in the United Kingdom and Macmillan hastened to reprint all the novels. American audiences were quickly introduced to Barbara by E.P. Dutton who, in 1978, began publishing all of her novels. Furthermore, the books were translated into many foreign languages and Pym enjoyed international acclaim.



But fate intervened once again. Only two years after her rediscovery her cancer returned, and this time treatments were unsuccessful. She rushed to finish her new novel, A Few Green Leaves, knowing it would be her farewell to her readers. Barbara died at the Michael Sobell House, a hospice in Oxford, on 11 January 1980. She is buried in the churchyard at Finstock beside her sister, who died in 2004.

In 1982 Hazel Holt, Barbara's close friend, International African Institute colleague, and literary executor prepared An Unsuitable Attachment for publication, followed by Crampton Hodnet in 1985. In 1987 Civil to Strangers was published, together with several short stories selected by Holt.  A Very Private Eye, an autobiography drawn from Barbara's diaries and letters, was edited and published by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym in 1984, and Holt's biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym was published in 1990.

Barbara Pym novels still sparkle as brightly as jewels on the literary landscape. The real world has changed enormously in the years since she wrote her last story, but the 'entirely recognizable world' she created remains forever intact, beckoning readers to return time and again. They are rewarded anew by the richness of Pym's unique gifts to her readers. It appears that Barbara Pym has achieved the 'immortality that most authors would want – to feel that their work would be immediately recognized as having been written by them and nobody else.'   -- Ellen J. Miller

CLICK HERE for a detailed guide to the places where Barbara lived, worked, and worshipped throughout her life.