The very best Christmas features... Jerry Dowlen celebrates the life and centenary of Barbara Pym...
"Cod on Fridays, and those endless cups of tea": celebrating
the 100-year anniversary of the novelist Barbara Pym.
time to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Books Monthly! Hearty
congratulations to our editor Paul Edmund Norman on reaching this splendid
landmark. Now, surely, one big literary anniversary deserves another?
This year 2013 has marked the centenary of Barbara Pym (1913 - 1980). She is
one of our most popular modern authors. Lord David Cecil held that her
"unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels are the finest examples of
high comedy to have appeared in England in the twentieth century." And the
famous poet Philip Larkin said: "She has a unique eye and ear for the
small poignancies and comedies of everyday life."
Born in Shropshire, educated at Oxford, Barbara Pym published six acclaimed
novels between 1950 and 1961. Then, after a period in the wilderness when
publishers rejected her stories of vicars and spinsters as too old-fashioned
for the Swinging 'Sixties, she enjoyed a second vogue of popularity after 1977,
sending out a further six published novels. If they were still around today, I wonder if Lord Cecil and Philip Larkin would
argue that in her 100th anniversary year of 2013 it should be Barbara Pym’s face
on the new £20 note, instead of Jane Austen! Barbara Pym's novels have been often compared to those of Jane Austen. For
example, Jilly Cooper, has declared that Barbara Pym is her favourite writer
("I always pick up her books with joy") and that her "gentle,
slyly comic novels always remind me of Jane Austen let loose in Cranford."
Pym’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC
Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013 – the exact centenary date of her birth.
The interviewer Roy Plomley knew that for plots and
characters in her novels Barbara Pym drew upon her own life experience of
spinsterhood, a number of unrequited love affairs, an upbringing in a
churchgoing family and a clerical career in anthropology (she worked on the
journal of the International African Institute). He knew that the most exciting
and dramatic thing that you might expect to encounter in a Barbara Pym story is
a jumble-sale to raise funds for the church organ, two sisters debating whether
a cauliflower cheese is an adequate dish to serve to the new curate who is
their guest for luncheon, or a visit to an abbey or a castle on a wet afternoon
during a holiday by the English seaside
Conversing in the clipped BBC English of that period, Roy Plomley and Barbara
Pym discussed brief highlights of her life, her novels about “church and
unsensational lives”, and her writing technique. In her rather thin, plummy
voice Barbara Pym identified the writers Edgar Wallace and Aldous Huxley as
early inspirations for her to write.
After stating that poetry was one of her greatest literary loves Barbara Pym
chose as one of her eight Desert Island Discs a recording of Philip Larkin
reading his poem 'An Arundel Tomb'. In part, surely, she chose this in
gratitude to Philip Larkin for his kindness (and that of Lord Cecil) in
speaking up for her and restoring her books to public prominence in 1977. But I
wonder too if Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ appealed to her in particular
because it contains the line: “That faint
hint of the absurd”? It is a line that perfectly captures the subtle humour
that she was so adept at weaving into her own novels. To cite just two examples
from ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ (1950): a member of the congregation is said to
resemble a lighthouse, because of the way that her grey dress sits on her
narrow shoulders and broad hips; another villager is the widow of a Member of
Parliament – “an excellent man in his way, although he had never been known to
speak in the House except on one occasion, when he had asked if a window might
be opened or shut.”
Pym told Roy Plomely that she had retired from the hurly burly of London to
live in the Oxfordshire countryside. But throughout her youth and her adult life
she had written constantly. “I can't stop writing. It gets hold of you. I try
to write every morning: two pages; 800 words. I keep notebooks for jotting down
quotations, ideas, and things that have happened.”
Poetry in the novels of Barbara Pym: “These
remembered scraps of culture had a habit of coming out unexpectedly.”
didn’t already know that Barbara Pym in real life was a lover of poetry, you
would soon discern it from reading her novels. She allows many of her fictional
characters to recite poetry out loud or sotto
voce. We see this from a good few of the academics, clergymen and
theologians who populate her stories, but the habit is by no means restricted
to these more obviously erudite characters. Just about anyone, it seems, is
capable of suddenly bursting into verse!
ex-Naval officer and reputed conqueror of many Wrens, has a marriage with
Helena in ‘Excellent Women’ (1952) that seems to be as rocky as his name.
Happily, they find reconciliation near the end of the story. They share a
poetic moment that includes Rocky reciting some lines of Dante – firstly in
English and then in the original Italian. Earlier in the book, Rocky takes a
book of poems from a shelf and reads an extract of a Matthew Arnold poem.
Arnold crops up too in ‘No Fond Return of Love’ (1961). Aylwin Forbes finds
that some lines of Arnold come into his head during a train journey to the
seaside where his mother runs a guest-house. Aylwin is a serial poetry-reciter.
When he chances to meet Dulcie Mainwaring on the promenade and it begins to
rain, he is instantly reminded of a Shakespeare sonnet:
Why did thou promise such a
And make me travel forth without
is on holiday with her friend Viola who secretly fancies Aylwin and has carried
out some secretarial work for him in the past. Viola shows off in front of
Aylwin at a luncheon party when she recites some lines of Dante (the same lines
that Rocky recites in ‘Excellent Women’). In her turn, Viola is treated to a
recital of some German poetry when her new suitor Willy Sedge – of Viennese
extraction – woos her at a later stage of the story.
it, I wonder, that all these characters have developed such a readiness to
remember and to recite, either out loud or in their head, a line or two of
poetry as a reaction to something that is occurring in their lives? Are we
meant to assume that the educated classes generally in those days – the 1930s,
1940s and 1950s – were poetry aficionados
as a matter of course? Or do we assume that each of the characters had acquired
his or her specialised knowledge of poetry by dint of some particular personal
circumstance such as family upbringing or job?
told little, for example, of the background of Wilmet Forsyth, heroine of ‘A
Glass of Blessings’ (1958). She is age thirty-three, married, and a regular
churchgoer. There is nothing that suggests an overly educated upbringing, but
we nevertheless find that some poetry of Marvell comes readily to her mind
during a visit to a nunnery garden:
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than Empires and more show
Pym’s novels parade for us a veritable cast of poetry-spouters! This is
particularly so in ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ where “scraps
of culture have a habit of coming out unexpectedly” from a varied
cross-section of characters who span different occupations and backgrounds.
novel ‘Less Than Angels’ (1955) the central character Catherine Oliphant does
at least acknowledge that poetry doesn’t necessarily hit the spot with everyone
on our planet. She works as a journalist and writes romantic stories that are
published in magazines. She sits one evening in her little flat near Regents
Park: “Dear as remembered kisses after
death, she typed idly, but was it likely that her hero would have read
Tennyson or quoted the line aloud like that? Not very, she thought, getting up
and walking around the room.”
visit Barbara Pym’s early-written novel ‘Crampton Hodnet’ (completed in 1940
but not published till 1985) we find evidence that she filled her novels with
poetry from the very first. We are only a few pages in when we find the plain
and timid churchgoing Miss Morrow working on a good cause: she knits a
balaclava hat for a seaman, and the lines from a hymn come into her head:
Fierce was the wild billow,
Dark was the night,
Wail of the hurricane
Be thou at rest.
Barbara Pym never wrote a book entitled ‘Remembering Scampi’! That potential title was suggested by
Mr Bason, the excitable and sexually-ambiguous vicarage housekeeper and cook,
in conversation with Wilmet Forsyth and her husband Rodney in ‘A Glass of
Blessings’. During this discussion Mr Bason moreover uttered one of my
favourite lines from any of the novels - a line that I would suggest is
superbly poetic in itself, and is certainly a quintessential line that sums up
what any Barbara Pym novel is all about!
Fridays, and those endless cups of
Artwork by: Trevor Mulligan
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