In praise of Barbara Pym

First aired on The Sunday Edition (02/06/13)

The English writer Barbara Pym spent 16 years in what she described as "the wilderness." Between 1950 and 1961 she wrote six well-received, gently ironic novels about spinsters and vicars and underappreciated office workers. And then, suddenly, her work went out of fashion, and no one would publish her. barbara_pym 279.JPG

But in 1977, thanks to a few lines in the Times Literary Supplement, there was a revived interest in her work that brought her a measure of fame. Winnipeg writer and broadcaster Bill Richardson has been a fan of Pym's fiction for years, and he put together a documentary tribute to her, which aired on The Sunday Edition on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Barbara Pym was born on June 2, 1913, and died January 11, 1980. Although her books aren't thematically ambitious or broad in scope, she has a devoted following, and is the subject of a trans-Atlantic literary society that meets annually at Oxford and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Papers presented at the conferences include titles like "Barbara Pym and the Comedy of Manners" and "Barbara Pym's Excellent Women: Subversion from Behind a Teacup."

"There was a sort of gravity about her, I think, about her person," Paul Binding, a writer in Shropshire, England, said. He met her in 1975, when her books were out of print and hard to come by. "She also had a vein of melancholy," which Binding attributed to her disappointment about the reception of No Fond Return of Love, which had been released in 1961 and was the last she'd published at the time.

"Pym approached situations in a way that always seems to have a quiet humour about it. She's got an eye for the slightly ridiculous, the incongruous," said Dr. Clemence Schultze, chair of the Oxford chapter of the Barbara Pym Society.

Yvonne Cocking, the Society's archivist, added that very little happened in Pym's novels -- but that didn't take away from their appeal. "She was not big on plots at all...It was her characterization that was always the essential part of her work, not the stories."

Pym's female protagonists tend to be intelligent, detached and highly observant. Many of them are unmarried, and work in offices as assistants to men engaged in heady academic pursuits.

"The men in Pym's novels tend to be slightly spoiled, slightly full of themselves," Schultze said. "They take the women for granted."

Richardson also spoke to Perri Klass, who teaches journalism and pediatrics at New York University, and is a member of the Barbara Pym Society of North America. When asked what appealed to her about Pym's fiction, Klass said: "Her voice, her sensibility, her eye for detail, her relationship to the people she writes about, the combination of irony and deep affection and yet detached anthropological detachment is extremely engaging. [It's] a world I don't know, a time period I don't know, yet it's so completely evoked and involving and delightful."

Photo credit: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society

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