Barbara Pym

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym (2 June 1913 – 11 January 1980) was an English novelist. In the 1950s she published a series of social comedies, of which the best known are Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958). In 1977 her career was revived when the critic Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin both nominated her as the most under-rated writer of the century. Her novel Quartet in Autumn (1977) was nominated for the Booker Prize that year, and she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


Early life and education

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born on 2 June 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire, the elder daughter of Irena Spenser, née Thomas (1886–1945) and Frederic Crampton Pym (1879–1966), a solicitor.[1] She was educated at Queen's Park School, a girls' school in Oswestry. From the age of 12, she attended Huyton College, near Liverpool. She went on to study English at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

During World War II she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service.

Literary career

Pym worked at the International African Institute in London for 17 years, beginning in 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. This inspired her use of anthropologists as characters in some of her novels.

After some years of submitting stories to women's magazines, she published her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, with Jonathan Cape in 1950.[2] Thereafter she published 11 novels; two more were published posthumously.

Pym's literary career is noteworthy for the long hiatus between 1963 and 1977. Despite early success and continuing popularity, her publisher Jonathan Cape rejected her manuscripts after 1961, considering her writing style old-fashioned. She approached other publishers, who also declined to publish her work. The turning point for Pym came with an influential article in 1977 in The Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent figures, the historian Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin, nominated her as "the most underrated writer of the 20th century".[2] Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence for 17 years, but even his influence had previously been of no use in getting her a new publishing contract.

Pym was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature following her return to the public eye.[3] Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn (1977), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and her work found a new readership in North America.[2] Two other novels, The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves, were published prior to her death.

Personal life

Pym never married, despite several close relationships with men. In her undergraduate days, these included Henry Harvey (a fellow Oxford student, who remained the love of her life),[4] and the future politician Julian Amery.[5] In later years, she was romantically involved with BBC producer C. Gordon Glover[6] and antiques dealer Richard Roberts.[7]

Later years

After her retirement, Pym moved to Barn Cottage at Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister Hilary. The sisters played an active role in the social life of the village.

On 11 January 1980 Barbara Pym died of breast cancer, aged 66. Following her death, her sister Hilary continued to champion her work, and was involved in setting up the Barbara Pym Society in 1993. Hilary lived at Barn Cottage until her death in February 2005. Pym and her sister are buried in Finstock churchyard. A blue plaque marking the cottage as a historic site was placed in 2006.

Barbara Pym's appearance on Desert Island Discs on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013 – the centenary date of her birth.[8]

Works and themes

Several strong themes link the works in the Pym canon, which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, and comedies of manners, studying the social activities connected with the Anglican church, Anglo-Catholic parishes in particular. Pym attended several churches during her lifetime, including St Michael and All Angels, Barnes, where she served on the Parish Church Council.

Pym closely examines many aspects of women's and men's relations, including unrequited feelings of women for men, based on her own experience. Pym was also one of the first popular novelists to write sympathetically about unambiguously gay characters, most notably in A Glass of Blessings.[9] She portrayed the layers of community and figures in the church seen through church functions. The dialogue is often deeply ironic. A tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.

Pym's diaries were published posthumously, under the title, A Very Private Eye (1985) ISBN 0-394-73106-9

Literary figures who champion her

Forewords to her novels have been written by A. N. Wilson, Jilly Cooper[10] and Alexander McCall Smith.

Philip Larkin said, "I'd sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen."


Biography and autobiography

  • Hazel HoltA Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym (1990)
  • Barbara Pym – A Very Private Eye (1984)
  • Hilary Pym and Honor Wyatt – A la Pym: The Barbara Pym Cookery Book (1995)


  1. ^ Matthew, H. C. G.; Harrison, B., eds. (23 September 2004), "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, pp. ref:odnb/31574, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31574, retrieved 17 December 2019
  2. ^ a b c Christopher Fowler, "Invisible Ink: No. 68", The Independent, 13 March 2011, accessed 30 September 2011
  3. ^ Dale Salwak (18 June 1987). The Life and Work of Barbara Pym. Palgrave Macmillan UK. pp. 39–. ISBN 978-1-349-08538-5.
  4. ^ James Runcie: "Miss Pym's Day Out". Accessed 17 March 2013
  5. ^ Faber, David, Speaking for England, London, 2005, ISBN 0-7432-5688-3
  6. ^ The Barbara Pym Society Conference 2002, Green Leaves, vol. 8 no. 2 (2002), ISSN 1360-9920
  7. ^ Linda McDougall, "Jane and Prudence and Barbara and Hazel: The Women Friends of Barbara Pym and How They Influenced Her Work" – Paper presented at the 14th North American Conference of the Barbara Pym Society Cambridge, Massachusetts, 17–18 March 2012
  8. ^ Jerry Dowlen (December 2013). "The very best Christmas features... Jerry Dowlen celebrates the life and centenary of Barbara Pym..." Paul Norman. Archived from the original (monthly literary column) on 24 December 2014. Retrieved 5 April 2015. Barbara Pym's appearance on 'Desert Island Discs' on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013
  9. ^ Philip Hensher (2 June 2013). "Philip Hensher toasts the novelist Barbara Pym". The Telegraph. Retrieved 29 July 2018.
  10. ^ "The Insider: Jilly Cooper on Barbara Pym". The Telegraph. 2 December 2007. Retrieved 24 April 2019.

Further reading

  • Hazel K Bell (ed.) – No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church (2004)
  • Orna Raz – Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949–1962: the Writer as Hidden Observer (2007)

External links

  • The Barbara Pym Society based at St Hilda's College, Oxford.
  • Blue plaque to Barbara Pym on her Finstock home
  • Barbara Pym Desert Island Discs, BBC
Retrieved from ""
This content was retrieved from Wikipedia :
This page is based on the copyrighted Wikipedia article "Barbara Pym"; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). You may redistribute it, verbatim or modified, providing that you comply with the terms of the CC-BY-SA