I recognized the name of novelist Barbara Pym and believed I had read one of her books … but I realized a few chapters into this thoughtful and entertaining biography that I had the wrong “Barbara.” I stopped reading the biography, went to an online lending library and read Pym’s “Excellent Women” and “Crampton Hodnet,” one recognized as a very important book in her lifetime, the other published posthumously. Turns out they had some similarities beyond just her style. I NEEDED to read her before finishing this biography. But I digress: Those reviews are elsewhere on my blog.
Barbara Pym was an observer of the smallest details of human behavior and the inner thoughts/motivations that lead to such behavior. From the beginning, this well researched but never pedantic biography draws a picture of a fascinating but odd and often obsessive young woman, whose past contributed to the very interesting writer she became. Pym, at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford, tended to stalk men she had a crush on, often without ever meeting them but at times, and more disastrously, engaging in unfortunate and devastating relationships with some of them. This tendency toward problematic relationships with men happened repeatedly into her fifties.
Her “stalking” interesting people revived at least at one point later in her life and she roped in her sister and friends to the escapade and ultimately befriended the stalkees, men who were homosexual lovers at a time this was a crime in Great Britain. Pym’s journals, which she faithfully wrote off and on throughout her life, demonstrate how deeply she thought about and understood herself and others and why her observational fiction is just so good. While she destroyed related letters, Pym in her early twenties was attracted to Naziism, which she should have renounced way sooner than she did. She spent time in Germany, mastered the language, wore a swastika brooch and dated an SS guy who was close to Hitler. I had to keep going in hopes she would not stay someone so unlikeable! Fortunately, she did renounce Nazism and Hitler and Germany, participating in numerous volunteer activities in Great Britain and ultimately joining the Wrens. Her knowledge of German made her a good censor for the government.
Pym formed life-long friendships, many involving copious correspondence. She never married. Byrne focuses primarily on her male relationships, but also on some of Pym’s female friendships here and there. She was funny as anything in her writing, but often reserved in her social interactions, except with friends and children. She had tendency to include, as her characters, her closest friends, ex-lovers and herself.Byrne does a wonderful job juxtaposing quotes from Pym’s journals and letters and then from her novels, showing how she incorporated these friends into her work, sometimes creating rather unlikeable caricatures while retaining the friendships.
Publishers stopped publishing her in the early 1960s, finding her quaint and irrelevant. Still, loyal fans reread her books for the next fifteen-plus years but as she remained absent from the literary scene. Incredibly, in 1977, long after Pym had resigned herself to writing only for herself, The London Times Literary Supplement solicited from writers a list of the most “underrated” and “overrated” writers of the past 75 years. Two separate people, one a great friend and believer in Pym and one who did not know her personally included Pym’s name on the “underrated” list, making her the sole person whose name showed up twice. Her audience expanded and revived and she was published once more and republished. Which was such a gift to her and to all of us because she has not gone out of publication since and I plan to read them all. It’s also a gift that she lived to experience this great success and to publish two more books before she passed away in early 1980.
This is a frank, well organized, vivid story of a woman who was ahead of her time when it came to having friends (and characters) who were gay, having lovers at a time it was not okay for women of her class or any single women, who could take small, small parts of a neighborhood/village and its residents and make every one of us relate to what she saw under the microscope. During her life, Pym was at times shocking and her choices incomprehensible– a person standing on a railroad track as the train barreled toward her. But, ultimately, this is a story of a captivating persona, a likable and accomplished woman and a life well-lived. Highly recommend!
CRAMPTON HODNET – Barbara Pym
In the middle of reading an entertaining and recent Barbara Pym biography, I could not remember why I thought I recognized her name and picked this to read. So I found this novel, completed in 1940 but published after her death in 1985. You can borrow it on Internet Archive an hour at a time. IWhen reading Crampton Hodnet, a story told from the point of view of Miss Morrow, a thirty-something unmarried female companion to elderly spinster Miss Dogged, I got hooked totally and forever on Pym’s style and observational wit. She writes about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives but, ultimately, each is subjected to a full dissection of their silliest motives, embarrassing thoughts, mistakes, successes and character in a way that is not mean spirited but spares them nothing. Very satisfying and very, very funny. By chance, I then read Excellent Women, a 1952 novel that also focuses on a spinster in her thirties and uses some very similar observational humor and admiration of these women on their own who do just fine, thank you. (See below)
Crampton Hodnet’s story takes place in North Oxford and covers a year or so. The plot lines are less important, as I gather is the case with Pym’s writing in general, than how various people interact, how Miss Morrow observes them, contributes a bon mot or two to a floundering conversation or a responds to query or comment that requires a humorous observation. The characters include a thirty-something curate who rents a room from Miss Doggett. Miss Doggett views the curate as her prized possession and he and Miss Morrow connect somewhat in ways that confuse him and amuse her. Miss Doggett’s nephew, Frances Cleveland, is a Don at Oxford, never rising higher, lecturing and carrying out his tutorials, when after many years on the straight and narrow, he unexpectedly falls in love with one of his female students who has a platonic crush on him.
The student, Barbara Bird, has some definite aspects of Pym’s temperament and way of seeing things, as described in “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym,” reviewed in this post.. She adores Frances but does not want to get involved with him. Little by little various people in the village, including Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow, see them together. Two of my favorite characters are a gay couple, who we first meet at tea at Miss Doggetts, her proteges, invited along with an odd hodgepodge of relatives of old school friends and invitees with other random connections. Its interesting that they are written in with no more stereotyping than any other character experiences, which is to say it is there but not jarring. Just part of the mix of ordinary people who do things we would find funny if we paid attention.
The couple figures into the Cleveland plot, seeing Frances and Barbara stooping down on a nature trail to hide from them in an amusing scene that eventually gets shared. Meanwhile, France’s wife spends a lot of her time trying to make sure her husband is busy and not around the house a lot, but as the gossip invades her house, she has to come to terms with his dalliance. The Cleveland’s daughter Anthea, 19, spends her time in love with Simon Beddoes, a student whose father was an ambassador to Poland before he died and whose mother is, at best, wifty. He expects to be Prime Minister one day and finds it convenient but not his highest priority to have Anthea as enamored of him as he is of himself. Actually, just about any pretty young woman would do. And in the end. life goes on. If we were to see a year long slice of the same characters the following year, as written by Pym, we would be similarly amused and there would similarly be no real plot.
I love this kind of observational, funny, smart writing. I know I will eat up all of Pym’s work and regret that it is over when it is.
EXCELLENT WOMEN – Barbara Pym
This was my second Barbara Pym, read in a two day period smack in the middle of the wonderful biography of her reviewed in this post. Excellent Women was published in 1952, centered on and narrated by Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her early 30s, living in a flat, with a shared bathroom, in a lesser neighborhood in London. When her brown coat wears out, Miss Lathbury thinks she will get a black or navy one because people of a certain age do not look well when wearing brown. Despite this, her schoolgirl friend Dora insists on buying a drab brown dress and won’t even consider a green one that would go so well with her coloring because it wouldn’t do for her life as a teacher in a girl’s school. What would people think?!
Miss Latham was an only child, her father a clergyman, her education more than adequate, left with a small income when her parents died within a year of each other. Dora recently moved out of their shared flat. Miss Lathbury enjoys having the apartment to herself and is a bit wary of the fact that a married couple is moving into the empty flat below her. The Napiers — she an anthropologist and he recently back from WWII service in Italy, essentially as an Admiral’s social secretary, are mismatched in many ways but one: They are both beautiful. She is somewhat dismissive of Miss Lathbury and he is kind and gallant. Miss Lathbury’s circle of acquaintances/friends is expanded by and through them for the duration of the Napiers occupancy downstairs. Ordinarily, Miss Lathbury’s social life centers on her church and her friendship with the Church of England Priest, Julian, who has never married, and his sister Winifred. There is drama when Julian and Winifred rent a flat in their home to Mrs. Gray, a clergyman’s beautiful widow. The ripple of change affects the church community and their friendship with Miss. Latham.
Miss Lathbury lunches about once a year with Dora’s brother William. She connects with others in the church to run jumble sales. She works for an organization for the care of distressed gentlewomen and attends Lenten services in that organization’s neighborhood with a coworker, after a meal at an awful cafeteria. She kind of becomes friends with Mrs. Napier’s single anthropology friend, Everard Bone, but the relationship is very confused and, as can be common for Miss Lathbury, often because he wants a favor. Pym is laugh out loud funny but never flashy. She makes Mildred’s visit to the awful cafeteria familiar and amusing when she just doesn’t have the organizational skills to put together her tray. She ends up holding a roll she won’t eat, secured no saucer for her coffee cup, selected a plate of food she (predictably) does not enjoy and cannot explain having chosen, but at least acquired an excellent steamed pudding. Her friend gives her tips about where she went wrong in the process of running the cafeteria line. Mildred responds that people should get a practice run the first time through. This isn’t important to any plot. It’s important to what Pym does to illuminate her characters. Of course, it’s written way better than this description, but my point is that it is items like this one piece of human behavior, inner thoughts and interaction sewn together with so many other ordinary moments that makes this book delicious.
There’s kind of a plot, but it’s more about a period in time in which a series of people interact in a shifty mosaic in a few neighborhoods in London and hearts break, fights happen, misunderstandings abound, beer turns out to taste like wash water, furniture gets wormy and people move on — all with clever but accurate observations of the humor in humanity. No one quite credits a woman like Miss Lathbury with the powers of observation and sophistication with which she is endowed and her own self-deprecation and wry commentary on how she gets into relational predicaments with others, constantly is expected to handle tricky situations for others, extracts herself or judges herself or laughs at herself is very engaging.