I have spent the last couple of weeks re-reading the collected novels of Barbara Pym. Nine of Pym’s novels were published during or shortly after her lifetime, as well as a couple of other novels and a memoir some years afterwards. None of the novels is long, and each can be read in a couple of days. But why would anyone want to re-read them, as I do, almost every year?
For me there is really only one answer. Barbara Pym makes me smile. Not only because her characters get themselves into odd and amusing situations, while secretly thinking odd and amusing thoughts, but because Pym is so unabashedly literary, conspicuously erudite, unapologetically snobbish, and delightfully self deprecating. Pym is one of those writers whose style is almost immediately recognizable. If by some wonderful surprise I were to come upon a newly discovered work of Pym’s, I know I would recognize her style—and rejoice—after reading a mere page or two.
Yet despite her impressive talent, Pym’s literary career was not all clear sailing. In fact she experienced a long and discouraging period in her writing life when her publisher, Jonathan Cape, having published five of her books successfully, politely declined to accept any more. It seemed that Pym’s delightfully gracious comedies, considered perfectly appropriate for readers in the 1950’s, were now thought to be too tame for the sexually uninhibited 60’s. Throughout the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s, Pym could not find a single publisher to take her work.
She was hurt and discouraged, but she kept writing. And finally in the late 1970’s when Philip Larkin, a prominent British literary critic named her as “the most underrated writer of the century”, Barbara Pym was rediscovered and vindicated. From this period came one of her most highly praised novels, Quartet in Autumn.
The story of two men and two women who work side by side in the same office, Quartet in Autumn resonates with an elegiac tone unlike any of her other work. When Letty and Marcia retire, they approach the unknown world of retirement in different ways. The colleagues whom they left behind, Edwin and Norman, believe their lives will be unaffected by the departure of the women, but they soon learn differently. In this novel Pym explores themes of identity, relationships, loneliness, and self awareness with the delicate but firm hand of a master. There is humor, but it is subtle compared to the light heartedness of her other novels. There is death, but it is not entirely unexpected, and it serves as a kind of wake up call to the three who remain.
Pym understood that lives may be lived very quietly on the outside, while masking a complex, even chaotic inner life. The characters in all her novels have dignity even in their improbable and at times silly imaginings, because Pym is a writer who respects her characters and understands them. As readers we come to love and respect them as well, even if we sometimes laugh at them, just a bit. Yet we know, even as we smile, that we could do worse than come under the scrutiny of an observer as wise and witty as Barbara Pym.