Authors: Barbara Pym

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Some Tame Gazelle, 1950

Excellent Women, 1952

Jane and Prudence, 1953

Less than Angels, 1955

A Glass of Blessings, 1958

No Fond Return of Love, 1961

Quartet in Autumn, 1977

The Sweet Dove Died, 1978

A Few Green Leaves, 1980

An Unsuitable Attachment, 1982

Crampton Hodnet, 1985

An Academic Question, 1986


A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, 1984


Civil to Strangers, and Other Writings, 1987


In the 1950’s, Barbara Pym (pihm) achieved modest critical and popular success as a novelist of manners with a comic touch. During the 1960’s and much of the 1970’s, publishers showed no interest in Pym’s work, dismissing it as out of step with the times. In 1977, however, she was singled out in a poll in The Times Literary Supplement as one of the most underrated writers of the twentieth century. Suddenly Pym became more popular than she had ever been before the long hiatus in her career, with new novels as well as reissues winning a large audience not only in Great Britain but also in the United States. Frequently compared with those of Jane Austen, Pym’s novels are among the most distinctive and highly esteemed in postwar British fiction.{$I[AN]9810000923}{$I[A]Pym, Barbara}{$S[A]Crampton, Mary;Pym, Barbara}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Pym, Barbara}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Pym, Barbara}{$I[tim]1913;Pym, Barbara}

Barbara Pym was born Mary Crampton, the first of two daughters born to Frederick Crampton and Irena Spenser Thomas. Her father was an established solicitor (lawyer), and her mother was the daughter of prominent dealers in iron goods who were said to have been the descendants of Welsh kings. There were household servants, a pony cart, singing, games, and laughter at Pym’s childhood home, which was outside the town of Morda in Shropshire (now Salop), near the Welsh border. As a child Pym was encouraged to write, and her first creative work, an operetta called “The Magic Diamond,” was produced by the two Pym sisters and their cousins at Morda Lodge, the Pym home. When she was twelve, Pym was sent to boarding school (Liverpool College, Huyton), where she would receive a better education than was available at nearby Oswestry facilities. In 1931 she began studies in English literature at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Sometime in 1934 Pym began what was to become her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle. She and her sister, Hilary, were models for its two principal female characters, and their friends were similarly given fictitious roles in the novel. Part of the disguise was that all the characters were written as age fifty or older. Pym’s themes in this novel would be characteristic of the themes in her future works of fiction. She wrote of emotionally deprived females who suffer rejection and disappointment when the love they feel for vain, pretentious men is not returned; meanwhile they courageously accept their quiet, ordinary lives. The novel began as a story and may have been a means by which Pym could express her own frustrated love for Henry Stanley Harvey, whom she had rather aggressively pursued during their time at Oxford, only to be disappointed repeatedly by Harvey’s indifference. Many of Pym’s journal entries from this period tell of her love for him and of the misery caused her by his disinterest. This novel, completed and submitted to publishers in 1935, was rejected at the time, so that Pym’s first work of fiction was not seen by the public until some fifteen years later. In the remaining years of the decade, Pym wrote at least three more novels, none of which was published in her lifetime.

In 1940 Pym worked in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) canteen at the military camp near Oswestry. In October, 1941, she was required to register for war service and was subsequently sent to a Bristol office where she was assigned to censor civilian letters. While in Bristol, she fell in love with broadcaster C. Gordon Glover, a married man. This was another affair in which Pym was more serious than was the object of her love, and her fiction continued to reflect her own experiences with men.

July of 1943 saw Pym’s entry into the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS). When her mother became ill, Pym returned home to care for her, and she remained at Morda Lodge until her mother’s death in September of 1945. Once Pym had obtained her discharge from the WRNS, she moved to London, where she shared a flat with her sister and took a position as an editor at the International African Institute. Her experiences while working with and for the institute’s anthropologists provided rich material for her active imagination.

Pym’s first six published novels appeared within the period 1950 to 1961. She was hurt and confused by the rejection of her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment, which was returned to her by her publishers with a note explaining that her work no longer suited their agenda. Pym was aware that other established authors had suffered the same fate. Nevertheless, the rejection was painful, and when a number of other publishers also rejected the novel, she put An Unsuitable Attachment aside.

Not willing to stop her writing, Pym continued producing novels for her own pleasure and for that of her friends. She was vindicated when, in 1977, the poll in The Times Literary Supplement rescued her from undeserved obscurity. When she died of cancer in 1980, her readership was still growing, as attested by the fact that several of her best-selling books were posthumous publications.

In seeking to account for Pym’s appeal, critics have noted that she is among those few writers who have been able to create a full-fledged fictional world. Many of her novels feature recurring characters; while each of her novels is self-contained, her work is best appreciated when seen as a whole–as a single fictional world to which each novel offers access from a slightly different direction. It is true that, as some critics have pointed out, the revival of interest in Pym’s work can be attributed in part to nostalgia for an England that no longer exists. However, for all the coziness of her early novels, she is an unsentimental observer. Her principal characters are women who have adapted as well as possible to the limitations imposed upon them by the circumstances of life. Pym chronicles the lives of these “excellent women” in novels that are distinguished by an abundance of wit, comedy, and irony, entertaining and unpretentious fictions that are also subtly crafted works of art.

BibliographyAllen, Orphia Jane. Barbara Pym: Writing a Life. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Part 1 discusses Pym’s life and work; part 2 analyzes her novels; part 3 examines different critical approaches to her work and provides a bibliographical essay; part 4 provides a comprehensive primary and secondary bibliography. An extremely useful volume for both beginning students and advanced scholars.Benet, Diana. Something to Love: Barbara Pym’s Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Benet’s fresh and insightful study examines Pym as “a chronicler of universal problems” whose focus–the many guises of love–moves, shapes, or disfigures all of her major characters. Includes an index.Burkhart, Charles. The Pleasure of Miss Pym. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. A very readable discussion of Pym’s life and autobiographical writings as well as her fiction through An Academic Question. Focuses on her worldview, the unique nature of her comedy, her religion, her place within the history of the novel, and her insights into man-woman relationships. Includes photographs and an index.Cotsell, Michael. Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1989. A cogent examination of all Pym’s novels, paying particular attention to her characters’ thoughts and feelings. Cotsell judges the novels to be “unabashedly romantic” and considers Pym’s sense of language, her unpublished writings, and her creative process. Includes an index.Donato, Deborah. Reading Barbara Pym. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. A biography of Pym which looks at reviews and criticisms of her work, along with the opinions of scholars and other writers of Pym’s time.Liddell, Robert. A Mind at Ease: Barbara Pym and Her Novels. London: Peter Owen, 1989. In this study, Liddell draws upon his fifty years of friendship with Pym to write a critical survey through Crampton Hodnet. Considers the attention she gave to her characters’ domestic and emotional lives, examines the reasons for her revival in popularity, and guides the reader through her novels, explaining which ones are or are not successful and why.Long, Robert Emmet. Barbara Pym. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A helpful treatment of Pym’s first eleven novels, paying particular attention to her recurring themes and character types, her modes of social comedy and satire, and her pervasive concern with “unrealized” love and solitude. Finds that Jane Austen’s dynamic English provincial world has reached a point of breakdown in Pym. Includes a chronology, notes, and an index.Nardin, Jane. Barbara Pym. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An excellent introductory study of Pym’s life and career, noting the origins and development of her themes, character types, and style. Contains a chronology, notes, a bibliography (listing primary and secondary sources), and an index.Rossen, Janice, ed. Independent Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This collection of ten original essays seeks to test Pym’s reputation by considering her craftsmanship, the literary influences on her work, and her special use of language. Includes biographical, historical, and feminist approaches to explore her unique creative process as it relates to events in her life. Notes and an index are provided.Rossen, Janice, ed. The World of Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Focuses on twentieth century England as Pym saw, lived, satirized, and enjoyed it. Defines her significance within the framework of the modern British novel, traces her artistic development, explores interrelationships between her life and her fiction, and addresses broader themes regarding British culture in her work, such as spinsterhood, anthropology, English literature, the Anglican Church, and Oxford University. Notes and an index are provided.Salwak, Dale, ed. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Nineteen essays consider Pym’s life and her novels, as well as her human and artistic achievements, from a variety of fresh perspectives. Includes notes and an index.Weld, Annette. Barbara Pym and the Novel of Manners. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Chapters on manners and comedy, poems, stories and radio scripts, the early novels, and her major fiction. Includes notes and bibliography.Wyatt-Brown, Anne M. Barbara Pym: A Critical Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. A fine narrative and analytical biography. See also the introduction: “Creativity and the Life Cycle.” Includes notes and bibliography.
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