This book has without doubt been one of the reading highlights of my year so far. Paula Byrne has put together a brilliant, intimate, warts-and-all biography of one of my favourite English novelists of the twentieth century. Much has been written about ‘Miss Pym’ but Byrne is the first to make full use of the extensive Pym archive of intimate letters, private diaries and novels to bring us an honest narrative of her life and work. Many regard her as one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart and she has been described as a worthy successor to Jane Austen, yet her own life seems to have been so defined by rejection, both in love and in her writing.
Where to begin? I must declare a personal interest here because for me the story began in March 1982 when a friend lent me a copy of Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died. I fell in love with the story, the extraordinary characters and with the writing style. I wanted more and was happy to discover that there were already nine novels in print and since she was still publishing, over the next six years we were blessed with new books to enjoy. More on my interest later.
For Barbara, Life began in Oswestry in 1913. In 1931, she went to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford where women were very much in the minority. During this time she discovered sex, love, friendship, gay men and Germany, where she fell for a man who was close to Hitler. She used all of these experiences to provide the themes and characters for no less than twelve novels. We were allowed a view into the worlds of academic student life, spinster sisters, High Church Anglicanism and it’s priests, English rural life, London life, unrequited loves and powerful intimacies, all of which left their mark on a group of relatively humble people. The first novel Some Tame Gazelle was turned down by every publisher it was sent from 1935 until 1950 when it first appeared in print. Over the next decade there were several new books but publishers grew tired of her apparently ‘old fashioned’ style and she was dropped. The wilderness years were difficult but relationships prevailed and Pym was considered to be wonderful company with a sharp and very perceptive wit. During this time Barbara developed a deep friendship with the poet Philip Larkin who became her most ardent fan and champion. This and the support of the literary biographer Lord David Cecil led to a sudden revival of interest in her work starting with the publication of Quartet in Autumn in 1977 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Barbara’s work now enjoyed a true renaissance and we were lucky to be gifted with more wonderful novels although sadly, four of them were published posthumously since, after a long battle with cancer, Barbara Pym died in January 1980.
When writing a review of a biography it is difficult to avoid reviewing the life of the subject rather than the book itself. I could wax lyrically and long about ‘Miss Pym’ but if you want to learn more about her I would suggest Wikipedia for a quick biography and bibliography. Do read her books if they are your style. You might also take a look at the Barbara Pym Society where there is also a link to a wonderful YouTube video called Miss Pyms Day Out with Patricia Routledge in the title role.
Of course for the full wonderful story this book itself is a masterpiece. The Adventures of Miss Barbera Pym is a scholarly, fair, honest and sympathetic account of the writer and her work. Paula Byrne gives us 614 pages of biography followed by another 72 pages of itemised notes and index! There are so many facets to Pym that are laid bare for us here. We are given insights into the best and worst of the writing and publishing world. We share intimate details of passions, loves and relationships. We also get a behind the scenes look at a particular slice of English life during the mid-twentieth century.
For me, the book has been a powerful reminder of why I read and loved every one of the novels all those years ago. Barbara Pym was one of the handful of authors who through their own writing style, gave me ‘permision’ to write the things I wanted to write about. For that I will be eternally grateful.