Marvelous Spinster Barbara Pym At 100

A note in Barbara Pym’s diary instructs: “Read some of Jane Austen’s last chapters and find out how she manages all the loose ends.” Next entry, a fairly typical one: “The Riviera Cafe, St. Austell is decorated in shades of chocolate brown. Very tasteless, as are the cakes.” This was written in 1952. She was 38, had published two novels, Some Tame Gazelle and the resplendent Excellent Women, and was at work on the next. It had taken 15 years of dutiful revising and circulating it around for Some Tame Gazelle to find a publisher. During the rewrites she had tried to heed her agent’s advice to “be more wicked, if necessary.”

This Sunday, June 2, marks the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth: If you aren’t lucky enough to be with the Barbara Pym Society in Oxford, you could make something from her cookbook (downloadable!) or just read one of her novels with champagne, tea or your hot milky drink of choice.

For new Pym readers: I’d start with either Excellent Women or No Fond Return Of Love. Other nice starting points: A Glass of Blessings, Less Than Angels, and The Sweet Dove Died. Do not start with Crampton Hodnet.

During her 20s, she’d completed several other books, including a Finnish novel (she’d never been to Finland) and a spy novel written during WWII, which was very good except for the actual spy parts (she had never met a spy). During the war she’d been placed in the Censorship Department, then joined the Wrens; she now lived in London with her younger sister Hilary. She didn’t expect to make a living off her writing. She worked at the International African Institute in the editorial department, managing its journal and ushering various “dusty academic” anthropological monographs and studies through publication. Only a handful of the anthropologists she worked with knew or appreciated that the woman overseeing their indexes and edits was one of Britain’s great comic novelists. Many an acknowledgement went: “I am grateful to Miss Barbara Pym for the considerable work involved in preparing the final version of the text for the printer.”

This is all so worthy, so stealth, so Pymian! Hazel Holt, her friend (and later biographer and literary executor), shared an office with her at the Institute. In her life of Pym, she describes their conjectures about the home lives and backstories of their Institute colleagues, the Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time quizzes they’d give each other in the long afternoons, how Pym would repurpose old galleys as stationery for typing her novels. Once an anthropologist, visiting their office, told them that years before he’d been to a party Virginia Woolf had given. The two leapt on this: glamorous brilliant Bloomsbury, what had the party been like? “But, alas, all he could remember was that the refreshment had consisted only of buns and cocoa.” This, too, seems very Pymian.

Another Pym thing is always to be a little in need of a revival. One critic-friend, attempting to spark interest in her novels after they’d gone out of fashion in the early 70s, recommended them as “books for a bad day.” And they are, it’s true. They’re comforting and deeply funny. Try to describe them, though, and they go all muzzy: curates and jumble sales, tea urns and “distressed gentlewomen.” (You can make Wodehouse sound similar with this sort of inventorying: country houses and cow creamers, prize pigs and school prizes.) Their human values — modesty, compassion, generosity, stoicism — are quiet. Worse, they’re so beautifully crafted, so stringently revised and edited, they appear deceptively as if they had been easy to write. What’s hard to get across is that Pym’s novels are, basically, spinster drag novels — the emotions quite genuine and at the same time a send-up, a pose. Love, Melancholy, Poetry, and Death, all the most Romantic Trappings, courtesy of the vaguely nice-looking lady in dowdy shoes at the next table who you didn’t notice jotting down everything you said into her little spiral notebook.

“Let me… add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person,” says Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women.


Barbara Pym and Henry Harvey

“Henry has bought a book about neurosis and is relieved to find that his neurosis differs in kind from psychosis and madness.” This happy neurotic news was from a friend of Pym’s from her college days in Oxford, the writer and critic Robert Liddell, on a road trip in East Anglia. The “Henry” of the letter was Henry Harvey, exasperating object of Pym’s unrequited love in her 20s, temperamental, brilliant marvel of their set of friends. Henry wrote her letters in “Latin, German, French, Swedish, Finnish and the English of James Joyce” that “I could not well understand.” Other times he didn’t answer her letters at all. He was that guy. They had a lopsided on-off-on relationship at Oxford and, later, a long friendship — the former a source of great pain and anguish to her. When Henry eventually got married, to a girl he’d met in Finland, Liddell sent a note care of Pym’s sister so that she could delicately break the news. He typed the address on the envelope so that Barbara wouldn’t recognize his handwriting. (Later, delightfully, Liddell got off the great deadpan line: “Surely Henry will wear out more than one wife.” And when the foretold divorce eventually came to pass, Liddell wrote to her, “what a relief it is to write irreverently of Henry and how angry he’d be! Like people making fun of the Devil.”)

Many of us have fallen for a Henry. What’s marvelous with Pym, and why it seems worth bringing the affair up, is that even when she was at her most besotted — referring to him as “Lorenzo” in her diary (Lorenzo!) and hotfooting after him around Oxford and stationing herself in the Bodleian reading room he frequented and then getting tongue-tied if he spoke to her — there remains something so wonderfully keen-eyed and akilter in how she observes him.

Oh ever to be remembered day. Lorenzo spoke to me! … He talks curiously but very waffily — is very affected. Something wrong with his mouth I think. — he can’t help snurging. … Then I said, ‘By the way I hope you don’t mind my calling you Lorenzo — it suits you you know.’ ‘Oh does it — how awfully flattering.’ He snurged and went on up the Iffley Rd while I walked trembling and weak at the knees into Cowley Place.

Oh ever to be remembered day. He snurged and went on up the Iffley Rd.

A later entry, just a single line: “What a bad sign it is to get the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse out of the library.” All the Pym hallmarks are in place. The snurging, fatuous hero; the heroine with her painful, unrequited love; the turning to poetry for comfort.

It wasn’t long after Harvey married that Pym started referring to herself as a spinster. Not just once but many places. This from a long, jokey, highly stylized, meant-to-impress letter she wrote to Henry, his wife Elsie, and Liddell, all together in Finland: “… and this Miss Pym, this spinster I was telling you about, is sitting outside in her green deckchair and she reading Don Juan and smoking a Russian cigarette (she is quite a dog, this old spinster)…” She was 24 then, that old spinster, already at work on Some Tame Gazelle, where she had, as it happened, cast herself as a spinster of 50 living with her sister next door to a former boyfriend named Henry, now married to a formidable rival. Pym had received a couple offers of marriage from other boyfriends; some of them hanging around while she was hightailing after Lorenzo up Iffley. She turned them down. She didn’t love them was part of it. But I also suspect, that on some level, she simply didn’t want to be married and have children (she never cared for children, always preferring cats). She wanted to write books, and while that certainly wasn’t an unheard of endeavor for a woman of her time and education, it was rare. Pining for Henry (or whoever) and throwing a spinster mantle — or cardigan, rather — over herself allowed her to maintain her independence, even while the remembrances stirred by the almost-romance fueled her books. “I’m beginning to enjoy my pose of romantically unrequited love,” she wrote in her diary after poring over some love poems in the Bodleian while thinking of Lorenzo.

The pain was sharp, biting, Romantic — and also narratively severed from its object. From one of the unpublished novels she wrote in her 20s:

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself, it was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long–suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Chekov, she thought. The first two years were the worst, she reflected calmly. She could tell any young woman that. But it was really no use entering upon an unrequited passion unless you were prepared to keep it up for at least five years. Seven years was best. There was something very noble about loving a person for seven years and getting nothing in return.

For all he was self-absorbed, Henry was perceptive about this current. In 1985, five years after Pym’s death, he gave a talk at PEN America about her (pause here for horrified imagining of your most painful, youthful crush giving a literary talk about you: “Yes, I’m the snurger of the diaries.”). About his memories of her as a young woman he said:

‘Being-in-love’ and ‘being-in-Oxford’ were better kept at pretend play. That way they could be turned into art.

She was tempted I think sometimes though. Oh the luxury of giving up, of giving up pretend play with all its elaborations, of becoming just a participant, an actor in life, in mere lazy undemanding life.

But the other side of Barbara won, the observing, creating Barbara doing her pretend playing in her writing and doing it so well.”

One lovely thing is how long their friendship lasted. At age 38, when she was feeling very confident with her writing when she wasn’t reading Jane Austen to remind herself how to tie up her plot loose ends, she addressed him tartly: “Now we can be mean to each other — I by not giving you a copy of my new novel and you by not buying it.” Much, much, later, near the end of her life, when he, now twice divorced, was living near her house in the country, they’d go on platonic weekend trips together. He recorded: “We looked in other hotels to see what people were eating.” He was, by that point, even writing in his diary like a Pym character.


The outset of the war in London made loss seem inevitable, too.

A 1939 diary entry:

So many places where one has enjoyed oneself are no more — notably Stewart’s in Oxford — shops are pulled down, houses in ruins, people in their marble vaults whom one had thought to be still living. One looks through the window in a house in Belgravia and sees right through its uncurtained space into a conservatory with a dusty palm, a room without furniture and discoloured spaces on the walls where pictures of ancestors once hung. One passes a house in Bayswater with steep steps and sees a coffin being carried out.

This is part the tug of sadness that makes itself felt in the novels, splendidly funny as they are. Life, one of her heroines notes, is “comic and sad and indefinite.”


At her desk in the International Africa Institute.

At the Institute, she was a writer among anthropologists, and she adopted many of their techniques. In her biography, Holt notes that Pym especially relished this line from a handbook called Notes and Queries in Anthropology: “Not even the slightest expression of amusement or disapproval should ever be displayed at the description of the ridiculous, impossible or disgusting features in custom, cult or legend.” Even before she joined the Institute, her diary had read like field notes. Notes on parties and dates, the comings and goings of crushes — their appearances deftly sketched in, their habits noted — are made, but the observing eye soon started to include random strangers and acquaintances. She was always curious. She was perverse in her attachment to the unfashionable middle-class, the ordinary — all the interests that would later make it easy to overlook her writing. “On the hottest day of the year I saw two nuns buying a typewriter in Selfridges. Oh, what were they going to do with it?” In the diaries, she doesn’t manage to hide amusement, but she’s a steadfastly kind, benevolent observer all the same.

Some of these flares of curiosity extended ongoing “sagas,” where she and her sister Hilary would track the lives of strangers for a period, creating elaborate stories about their lives and arranging sightings. (If she lived now she’d probably satisfy a lot of this narrative urge online. “Barbara Pym is now following you Random Person With Interesting Twitter.” I also regret she didn’t get the chance to Google-stalk. She would have been masterful.). For a time, they were obsessed with the comings and goings of two of their neighbors, a gay couple who lived with a little dog a few doors down. One weekend, in temporary possession of a car, they followed one of the men, who mysteriously (to them) drove off every Sunday wearing a cassock. He turned out to be a church organist: “After the service they were swept up with the rest of the congregation, into the church hall for cups of tea, and found that they were being welcomed enthusiastically by the vicar’s wife, holding a jar of sugar and a pink plastic apostle teaspoon.”

The four later became friends, which, Holt notes, was awkward. She quotes Rachel Ferguson’s novel, The Brontës Went to Woolworths, which has a similar type of saga-building as its plot: “The main trouble lay in the fact that I came to [her] aware: primed with a thousand delicate, secret knowledges and intuitions, whereas to her I was, I suppose, merely so much cubic girl, so to speak.”

This practice of observation, of jotting even the smallest thing in notebooks, was partly why Pym’s unmatched at the absurd minor-key social skirmish. Here’s one incident that went from the diary to No Fond Return Of Love.

Then there was this field study instigated by Hilary, described in a letter to a friend:

Hilary set to work the other evening compiling a list of all the people who had ‘worshipped’ at St Laurence’s since we came here that we could remember. We then analysed the circumstance of them leaving — if they had left — and came to the conclusion that they had been removed by Rome, Death and Umbrage. A good title for a book, don’t you think? Umbrage of course removed the greatest number.

Umbrage would.


A photo taken by Philip Larkin of, from left, Monica Jones; Hilary Pym Walton; and Barbara Pym

One regular correspondent and steady supplier of amusing minutiae was Philip Larkin. He first contacted her after the publication of No Fond Return Of Love, her sixth published novel, to ask if he could write “a review essay on her books.” This was in 1962; she was nearing 50, he 40.

His sister had introduced him to her books, and he was a fervent admirer. She agreed to the essay, and not long after he wrote:

I have just begun reading your corpus in earnest, pen in hand…. There are dozens of things I should like to ask, but it is probably better for me to put down what I think unprompted. I remember the tremendous trepidation and trembling with which I put my most cherished critical ideas to Mary McCarthy: had she intended, etc. She listened to the end and then said ‘No’, that was all. Moments with the Mighty.

Their letters back and forth to each other are a joy. They talked about writing, and they gossiped about their jobs and housekeeping arrangements. They were uniquely placed to appreciate all the different compartments of each other’s lives. She might write him about the Institute’s journal — “We have plenty of ‘problems’ with the next Africa — trying to avoid having two rather dull articles together…” and he would, as he made his rounds as University Librarian, look up the issue. In his letters, he might tell her about a new bedroom carpet he’d bought, or complain about the students or the academic posts he’d been offered: “The University of Wisconsin offers me a year as Writer in Residence, with lectures, creative writing seminars, and ‘informal coffee hours’ — could this be worse do you think?” There’s the pleasure, too, in seeing him refer to “Aubade” offhandedly as his “in-a-funk-about-death poem.”

At first they’re friendly but formal, then over time their letters relax. They become “Philip” and “Barbara” to each other — always an important benchmark in Pym world. They go on at such a comfortable pitter-patter it comes as a shock to come upon a letter where they’re arranging a meeting, at a hotel bar in Oxford, and planning how they’ll recognize each other and to realize that they’d never before met in person. Larkin: “I am tall and bald and heavily spectacled and deaf, but I can’t predict what I shall have on.” This sent 14 years after his first letter to her.

The main cheering thing about their correspondence, though, was its timing. It started right at the time she stopped being able to get published. From 1950 to 1962, she’d published six novels, all of them with Cape; these had been “well received” and done modestly well in sales. Her seventh, written in the same vein as the first six, was turned down, brusquely: “Dear Miss Pym — I feel that I must first warn you that this is a difficult letter to write.” Etc. No invitation to submit in the future.

Writing indignantly to a mutual friend, Larkin said: “If her publishers are correct, it is surprising that there was not someone at Cape prepared to invite Barbara Pym to lunch and say that while they had enjoyed her books in the past and hoped to do so in the future, this particular one needed revisions if it was to reach its potential value. It was the blank rejection, the implication that all she had previously written stood for nothing, that hurt.”

She sent the book, An Unsuitable Attachment, on to other publishers. No takers. It was the early 60s in London. Catch-22 and Ian Fleming were bestsellers. A novel about a female librarian who makes a trip with her church group to Rome must have seemed like some naïve obsolescent dodo wandering the scene. This wilderness period lasted 15 years. How dark those years must have been. She was getting older; she went through treatment for breast cancer, she suffered a freak stroke. Her first books went (mostly) out of print. She remained stoic, gently, bravely, philosophically amused. While in hospital: “I can’t make out whether the other ladies here are breastless (like Amazons?) or have other things the matter with them.”

During this interval she wrote a few other novels, even though she had little hope they’d ever be published. “Novel writing,” she noted, “is a kind of private pleasure, even if nothing comes of it in worldly terms.” Larkin’s letters — warmly admiring, astonishingly perceptive (he was her best critic in reading her drafts), rude on the subject of publishing house’ readers — must have been sustaining:

Yes, I read your books, in order, in succession, as I do from time to time, and once more found them heartening and entertaining — you know, there is never a dull page: one never feels ‘Oh, now I’ve got to get through this before it becomes interesting again — it’s interesting all the time.

When she wrote him, uncharacteristically down, “Here I am sixty-one (it looks worse spelled out in words) and only six novels published — no husband, no children,” he wrote back, “Didn’t J. Austen write six novels, and not have a husband or children?”

It was due partly to Larkin she was eventually published again, too. Asked by The Times Literary Supplement in 1977 to name the most underrated writer of the century, he named Barbara Pym. So did Lord David Cecil, which made her the only living writer on the list to get two votes. Interest in her stirred. With it Larkin was able to interest The TLS in his long-planned article about her work. She published Quartet In Autumn, one of her best (and most devastating) novels, which had been waiting — it was shortlisted for the Booker. Larkin was the chairman of the judging committee.

Writing to her about the prize night, Larkin says:

Wasn’t Bookernacht bewildering! I do hope you enjoyed it. Fancy meeting Maschler [from Cape] — more than I have. I never saw the table plan at all. I’m sure all sorts of famous people were there. A little man came up to me and said: ‘I’m Lennox Berkeley’, and I nearly said ‘I loved all the dances you arranged’, then remembered that was Busby Berkeley, and this chap was some sort of Kapelmeister.

(Not being particularly stoic, I cry like crazy at this letter and the buoying Jane Austen letter whenever I re-read them. The jubilation and nonsense of the second one! I loved all the dances you arranged.)

When Barbara Pym died, in 1980, of abdominal cancer, she had published eight books, and a ninth was ready for publication. She had experienced Bookernacht; a tide of good reviews; the Church Times had gratifyingly and hilariously reached out to her (her heroines are always puzzling and mulling over their copies of the paper); and she knew her books were being taught in universities in England and the U.S. After her death her sister donated her papers to the Bodleian, which seems the perfectly right place for them to be archived. In 1942, writing in her journal, she’d said: “This evening I was looking for a notebook in which to keep a record of dreams and I found this diary, this sentimental journal or whatever you (Gentle Reader in the Bodleian) like to call it.” She knew she’d land there.

Previously: How To Be A Monster: Life Lessons From Lord Byron

Carrie Frye is here and here. Top photo by Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society.