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.
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.