In 1977, she was called “the most underrated writer of the 20th century” by an influential English literary critic and one of England’s most famous poets. And they were right!
I love recommending Barbara Pym to people. She’s an absolute treat, and reading her for the first time is almost as enjoyable as discovering Jane Austen.
Barbara Pym was a 20th century English author, who published nine novels during her lifetime. Three further novels were published posthumously, as well as a collection of short stories.
If you enjoy an oh-so-British comedy of manners, you’ll delight in Pym’s novels.
Where to Start with Barbara Pym?
Most people agree that Excellent Women, published in 1952 is her best novel. It’s what Pride and Prejudice is to Jane Austen.
I enjoy it very much, but I am not as much of a fan of the first person narrative. I liked No Fond Return of Love (1961) and Some Tame Gazelle (1950) better.
A Quartet In Autumn was published in 1977 after a 16-year hiatus. It’s a darker book, but it’s still graced with Pym’s particular wit.
I recently finished Crampton Hodnet, which was written between 1939 and 1942, but not published until after her death in 1980. It’s been years since I’ve read any Barbara Pym, and coming back to her with this book was a joy. I found myself giggling aloud at several points.
What Makes Her So Enjoyable?
I’ve seen her books classified as “Romance”. I’ve also seen them referred to as “comedies of manners.” I think the latter is a better description.
In a romance, two people meet, fall in love and have some kind of conflict (or perhaps the other way around) and after hijinks and kerfuffles, end up married and living happily ever after.
Jane Austen’s books are certainly romances in that sense (though I would never classify them as purely “romance novels”!).
Barbara Pym’s novels, however, are more subtle and less obviously “romance” than that. Yes, there is often love–sometimes even romantic love–in her books. But most often her characters are falling in love with the wrong people (An Unsuitable Attachment was one of the novels published after her death), and rarely do her novels end with a marriage.
What makes her books so enjoyable is how bitingly funny they are. She usually has one character who acts as an observer, watching the little dramas unfolding about them with bemusement and humor.
She writes about small, rather circumscribed lives: spinsters active in fading churches, clergymen, awkward university academics, dashing undergraduates, glamorous local widows, and all with a razor sharp wit which delights in pointing out the ridiculous in each and every one of them.
She doesn’t do this unkindly, though. Her novels show she clearly loved observing people and their little foibles, and she writes of them with great affection. Her genius comes from the fact that she clearly doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously.
You Will Laugh When Reading Barbara Pym
If you enjoy wry observations, awkward situations and somewhat ridiculous characters getting themselves into scrapes, you will enjoy Barbara Pym.
You won’t cringe at her characters, but you’ll sigh and laugh at them. And as our lives have become more insular, our circles smaller because of the pandemic, you’ll find the small, local settings–a university set in North Oxford, a small church community in a London neighborhood–almost familiar.
You won’t have the same powerful characters as in Jane Austen–no brooding Darcy or dashing Willoughby here. Instead, you’ll find much more commonplace and consequently probably more sympathetic characters. You can more easily believe her characters to have been real people.
Not Too Seriously…
The greatest power of Barbara Pym, I think, is how she makes us see ourselves in her characters, and in so doing she makes us laugh at ourselves.
Do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books from your local library. You won’t regret it.