In Pym's first published novel, middle-aged spinster sisters Belinda and Harriet Bede live together in an English village, where the meek romantic Belinda quietly nurses her unrequited love for the pompous, married Archdeacon Hoccleve while her plump, jolly sister dotes on an endless parade of curates and gently turns down repeated marriage proposals from an Italian count. Barbara Pym based the characters in this novel, written shortly after she came down from Oxford in the 1930s, on herself, her sister Hilary, and many of her friends from Oxford, projecting them into their fifties.
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Barbara Pym began working on what she called her ‘North Oxford novel’ in 1939. Funnier and less introspective than her later novels, it is nevertheless full of trenchant observations and memorable characters. Pym captures to perfection the atmosphere of North Oxford in the 1930s. The abortive romance between the downtrodden lady’s companion Jessie Morrow and the self-satisfied curate Stephen Latimer is echoed in the equally unfulfilled relationship of idealistic Oxford student Barbara Bird and her married tutor, Francis Cleveland.
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Excellent Women is probably the best-known Barbara Pym novel, often recommended to the uninitiated as the book with which to start. Mildred Lathbury, one of those unmarried “excellent women” who tend to get involved in other people’s lives, lives in a slightly shabby corner of postwar London, where she works part time at the Society for the Care of Distressed Gentlewomen and attends the nearby high Anglo-Catholic church. Her well-ordered life is disrupted when a handsome ex-Navy officer and his anthropologist wife move into her building and a clergyman’s attractive widow sets her sights on the vicar.
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Jane Cleveland, a vicar's wife in her forties, hopes to see her best friend Prudence Bates – a sophisticated bachelor girl with a tendency to fall for unsuitable men – happily settled like herself. So she invites her to the village where her husband Nicholas is vicar, and introduces her to a handsome and eligible widower. But Prudence has an unlikely rival for his affections in mousy-looking Jessie Morrow, a lady’s companion determined to escape her role as a spinster.
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'After the war, I got a job at the International African Institute in London... I learned how it was possible and even essential to cultivate an attitude of detachment towards life and people, and how the novelist could even do “field-work” as the anthropologist did. And I also met a great many people of a type I hadn’t met before. The result of all this was a novel called Less Than Angels, which is about anthropologists working at a research centre in London, and also the suburban background of Deirdre, one of the heroines....'
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Wilmet Forsyth is bored with the everyday routine of her life. Bored with teatimes filled with local gossip, bored with her husband, a civil servant who dotes on her. But on her thirty-third birthday, Wilmet’s conventional life takes a turn when she runs into the handsome brother of her close friend. Driven by a fantasy of romance, sheltered, naïve Wilmet sets out to seduce Piers—only to discover that he isn’t the man she thinks he is.
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Dulcie Mainwaring is in her early 30s, given to wearing tweed suits and sensible shoes, and fond of Ovaltine: ‘Life’s problems are often eased by hot, milky drinks.’ She lives alone in the suburbs and does indexes and odd research jobs for a living. After her fiancé breaks off their engagement, she attends a scholarly conference, meets the handsome editor of a literary journal, and falls (‘ridiculous and impossible though it obviously was’) a little in love with him.
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The 'Attachment' in the title is that between Ianthe Broome, an attractive, well-bred librarian, and John Challow, a younger coworker who is her social inferior. Perhaps even more unsuitable is the attachment between the vicarage cat, Faustina, and the vicar’s wife, Sophia. The Rev’d Mark Ainger’s unfashionable North London parish is at the centre of this book, and the parish trip to Rome is classic Pym, full of high comedy and continental romance.
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The Sweet Dove Died lacks the geniality and fun of Barbara Pym's earlier works, but is written with a tense economy that generates greater force than the rather relaxed storytelling of its immediate predecessors…. Built on a series of love triangles, the plot represents tangled and mismatched loves with great conciseness and richness of implication. The remarkable heroine, cold, elegant Leonora Eyre, is incapable of passion but capable of heartbreak, strong-willed but finally miserable and helpless in her self-absorption.
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Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is an unsentimental novel about four English office workers who face ageing in different ways. Barbara wrote, 'It’s about four people in their early sixties—two men and two women—working in a London office. During the course of the story, the women retire and one of them dies. I wanted to write about the problems and difficulties of this stage in one’s life and also to show its comedy and irony—in fact I’d rather put it the other way round...'
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