Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym Centenary’

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Barbara Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire on 2 June 1913. Making this year her centenary year. Someone over on the Librarything Virago group suggested we read her books in order of publication during 2013 – just as we had done with the work of Elizabeth Taylor in 2012. Not only did I manage to keep up with the challenge (boding well for next year’s two massive challenges) but I read biographies alongside the novels and even held a Barbara Pym tea party at my house on June 2nd.

This was our schedule:

• January 2013 Some Tame Gazelle (1950)                              barbarapymbks
• February 2013 Excellent Women (1952)
• March 2013 Jane and Prudence (1953)
• April 2013 Less than Angels (1955)
• May 2013 A Glass of Blessings (1958)
• June 2013 No Fond Return of Love (1961
• June 2013 Quartet in Autumn (1977)
June was busy! As June was Barbara Pym’s birthday we read two novels (it was also a way of making 13 novels fit into 12 months) – but I also read A Very Private Eye – the letters and diaries of Barbara Pym. I also held a lovely Barbara Pym tea party on what would have been Barbara’s actual 100th birthday – Sunday June 2nd 2013 – there was even a Facebook group! June was also Barbara Pym reading week hosted by Thomas at My porch.
• July 2013 The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
• August 2013 A Few Green Leaves (1980)
• September 2013 Crampton Hodnet (completed circa 1940, published 1985)
• October 2013 An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963; published posthumously, 1982)
• November 2013 An Academic Question (written 1970-72; published 1986) – and I attended a dramatised reading of An Unsuitable Attachment at the new Library of Birmingham
• December 2013 Civil to Strangers and other writings (written 1936; published posthumously, 1989) – and I also read Barbara in the Bodleian which I has bought at the event in November.

Sitting down to write this – I made a shocking discovery – I was convinced that I had re-read A lot to Ask this year, the biography of Barbara Pym written by her long-time friend Hazel Holt – but I discover I haven’t – oh well too late now – but how strange that I was so sure I had re-read it this year. I obviously intended to and didn’t get around to it.

barbara pym6jpgI have been asked once or twice this year to sum up Barbara Pym to someone who has never read her. I admit I struggle to do her justice; it is easy to descend into hackneyed phrases – like English comedies of manners or social comedies. Her work is much deeper than a cursory reading might make them seem. Her early novels – generally considered the Pym canon – certainly have recurring themes surrounding Anglo-Catholic ecclesiastical communities but all her work examines the relationships between men and women and their place in society, she is particularly gifted at portraying the pathos of unrequited love. Like Elizabeth Taylor – and indeed Jane Austen – Barbara Pym has a sharp eye for the everyday absurdities in life – and a marvellously keen ear for the way people of a certain class and type speak to one another.

This year of Pym, for me at least, has been a real joy. Ten of the thirteen novels were re-reads for me, and I already thought I knew which would remain my favourites. My opinion of only one novel has been greatly changed. Quartet in Autumn – the novel which was published in 1977 and longlisted for the Booker prize – following fourteen years in the literary wilderness. It is very different – I had remembered it as rather bleak, and dare I say depressing. However on re-reading it in June – I realised it is utter genius, and it is now a firm favourite. My other two favourites remain Jane and Prudence and No Fond Return of Love, although I rather adore them all – and Civil to Strangers was a delight – my first reading of it this month was pure joy.

Next year’s reading challenges will be underway in just a couple of weeks – and I hope they bring as much pleasure.
Next year’s challenges – for anyone interested are:

The Great War theme read
Dance to the Music of time –

If you read Pym this year – tell me what were your highs and lows of the year?

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Civil to Strangers was Barbara Pym’s second novel written in 1936 – although not published until after her death in 1980. Alongside it is some of the previously unpublished and unfinished material that she left behind her. Brilliantly edited by her friend and biographer Hazel Holt each unfinished work is perfectly satisfying – the reader is not left hanging, just wishing for a little more.

Civil to Strangers – the longest piece in this collection running to almost 170 pages. Cassandra Marsh-Gibbons is a young woman, married to self-absorbed writer Adam. In the small Shropshire town of Up Callow, the Marsh-Gibbons are very much at the heart of local society which also includes Mrs Gower the widow of a professor and Mr Phillip Gay an ageing bachelor who has failed to marry a wealthy wife as had been his plan in his youth; Mr Gay shares his home with his niece Angela – who is in love with Adam Marsh-Gibbon, and has started to cast her eye at the curate. Rockingham Wilmot is the rector, living with his wife and daughter Janie. Into the small community of Up Callow comes Hungarian Stefan Tilos, who soon sets the cats among the pigeons, and gets tongues wagging when it is soon apparent that he has become instantly enamoured of dear good excellent Cassandra.
Cassandra is a put upon wife, taken for granted by her husband; she isn’t entirely down trodden as she casts a weary and ironic eye at the events around her. Having had the wonders of Budapest related to her by the irrepressible Mr Tilos Cassandra decides to go – alone, leaving her husband to go and study quietly in Oxford at the Bodleian. However as Cassandra’s train pulls away she is made aware that Mr Tilos is on the same train, on his way to Budapest on business and delighted to find her aboard the same train.

“But I have tea. Wait a minute, please? Mr Tilos produced a basket a sensible aunt might have, and inside were two thermos flasks, two cups and some packets wrapped in greaseproof paper.
Cassandra was deeply touched at this.
Mr Tilos handed her a jam sandwich. ‘It is plain food,’ he said ‘but healthy I think’
‘It’s lovely,’ said Cassandra warmly,’ and I’m sure it must be healthy. It’s making me feel so much better.’
What an excellent and useful man Mr Tilos was, she thought, and what a pity he spoilt things by embarrassing her with his protestations of affection.
And then she wondered, did anyone in Up Callow know that Mr Tilos had got on to this train. If they did, then there would be no longer any doubt about it. To all intents and purposes, she had gone off with Mr Tilos.”

It was nice to see some of Pym’s characters outside of England again (we were treated to an Italian trip in An Unsuitable Attachment). Mr Tilos manages to shake things up in Up Callow – everyone seems to get what they want and it is all truly delightful – vintage Pym definitely one to put a smile on anyone’s face I should think.

Coming after Civil Strangers are three unfinished novels – edited to the length of longish short stories – and I thoroughly enjoyed them. ‘Gervase and Flora’ is set in Finland, among a group pf English ex pats and the Finnish family that Gervase lodges with. Flora who has been in love with Gervase for years is staying with her aunt, Gervase comes to Finland to teach. The daughter of the house where Gervase is lodging falls for Gervase and Flora decides to encourage the attachment while beginning anew romance with one of Gervase’s students. Then come two stories set in World War Two – ‘Home Front novel’ and ‘So very secret’ – wonderfully eccentric and full brilliant observational period detail; black out curtains, rationing, eating savoury oatmeal and feeling patriotic for doing so, the pride in a new tin hat and sandbags spilling dark soil onto the pavement.

Four wonderful short stories follow, that give Pym fans the chance to meet again, Miss Dogget and Jessie Morrow from Crampton Hodnet and the Aingers and Faustina the cat from An Unsuitable Attachment – we also meet the American Ned from The Sweet Dove Died. I love the way that Barbara Pym never let a good character go to waste. The final piece is in Barbara Pym’s own words – ‘Finding a voice – a radio talk’ in which she describes how she came to find her voice as a writer.

All in all I loved this collection of Pym writings which has brought my year of Pym centenary reading to a pretty wonderful conclusion.


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I bought this book at a recent Barbara Pym event at the new Library of Birmingham – the author of this book had produced a dramatised reading of Barbara Pym’s novel ‘An Unsuitable Attachment’ which was read by a group of drama students. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to hear from Yvonne Cocking herself, but was happy to buy her book – which I thought would be a good way of completing my yearlong centenary reading of Barbara Pym’s novels.
As well as reading Barbara Pym’s novels (most of which have been re-reads in fact) this year – I also read A Very Private Eye – the letters and Diaries of Barbara Pym, and re-read A lot to Ask, the biography written by Barbara Pym’s friend Hazel Holt. Both those books provide a lot of excellent background reading for Pym fans – and I wasn’t sure if this book could possibly add all that much.

“I was introduced to all the staff, including Barbara Pym, the assistant editor of the journal Africa, who, other colleagues told me, had had six novels published, but whose type of book was now out of favour. I started reading the novels, but, I’m afraid like so many young people in the 1960’s, I did not find them very exciting”

BarbaraPymBarbara in the Bodleian is made up of a collection of essays by Yvonne Cocking an archivist of the Barbara Pym society. She actually knew Barbara Pym, and in fact worked alongside her at the International African Institute. The first essay – about the International African Institute was really quite interesting, as I have often wanted a clearer idea of what the place where Barbara Pym worked for so long might have been like. The majority of the essays seem to have been presented before as papers to annual general meetings and conferences of the Barbara Pym society. These essays are based upon Yvonne Cocking’s many years of research in the Pym archives in the Bodleian library. They include extracts of letters, diaries and the notes Barbara Pym kept in her notebooks. By piecing together these excerpts Yvonne Cocking charts the development of the nine novels which were published during Barbara Pym’s lifetime – the revisions she made, and the reactions that she received from friends, fans and literary critics.

We also get to see Barbara Pym in Germany in the 1930’s when she fell in love with a handsome young SS officer Friedbert Gluck. This was a very interesting essay for me – for despite having read ‘A lot to Ask’ twice – I had forgotten about this brief love affair – and Friedbert gets much less mention in ‘A very Private Eye’ – Barbara Pym – Yvonne Cocking suggests was quite likely embarrassed in later years by this relationship. I was also amused by how Barbara Pym appears to have come quite close to be being sued by Marks and Spencers – when they objected to a reference in Jane and Prudence – a reference that was later supposed to have been removed – but in fact it appears it never was.

Overall however I can’t really say I particularly enjoyed this book in the way I had expected to. Pages of glowing reviews and fan letters punctuated by some of surprising spite became fairly tedious – and on the whole the book wasn’t really very revelatory at all. Many of Barbara Pym’s notes on her work show a thought process that might be of some interest to some, but these are notes and were never meant for publication, and for me there was less interest in them than I had expected.  I enjoyed reading dear Elizabeth Taylor’s letter to Barbara Pym, and some of those fan letters from ordinary people were really lovely – maybe there were just too many for me.

“I write feeling a little silly for so doing, to say how much I enjoyed your book No Fond Return of Love. I am in the middle of a spell of feeling particularly overworked and underappreciated and didn’t feel to have a laugh left in me, when, on Saturday night I started to read your book in bed”  ( from a reader in Hampstead)

Maybe this book would appeal more to someone undertaking a particularly detailed study of Pym’s work. So aside from a couple of the essays that I have already mentioned, which did lift my interest somewhat – I did sort of plod through this book – dipping in and out of it over the period of nearly a week. This may in part be because I have had a particular problem with reading non-fiction this year – I suspect there will be others who would be fascinated by the things which I began to get bogged down by.

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2013-11-10 21.13.14 On Saturday afternoon Liz and I attended an event at the lovely and still sparkling new Library of Birmingham. It was a ticketed event called Afternoon tea with Barbara Pym. I knew the Barbara Pym archivist Yvonne Cocking was involved with it, and that there would be a dramatised reading of Pym’s work. I obviously had then misunderstood what the event was – because somehow I had understood that there would be a talk by Yvonne Cocking, I was looking forward to it. Yvonne Cocking was there – however she didn’t speak.

In fact Yvonne Cocking had adapted the novel ‘An Unsuitable Attachment’ for a dramatised reading by local drama students. What I had assumed would be readings of short extracts turned out to be a An unsuitable attachmentsdramatised reading of the entire (abridged of course) novel. I had to smile to myself – wondering whether any of the students had even heard of Barbara Pym before being sent the script. An Unsuitable attachment is actually really quite a humorous novel- which I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it recently – and it lends itself to being read aloud by a cast of actors rather well. I particularly liked the performances of the young men playing the parts of Rupert Stonebird and Mervyn Cantrell.

2013-11-09 18.47.50At the end of the performance – which was about an hour and twenty minutes or so – we were treated to tea and scones – there were cakes too – served on nice little tiered cake stands – and more than enough to go around. I can report there were no unseemly fights over the tea urn –just a long line of patiently waiting Pym fans fairly determined to get their tea. The one extravagance of the afternoon was the purchase of Yvonne Cocking’s book – published by the Barbara Pym Society – Barbara in the Bodleian: Revelations from the Pym archives – well I had to didn’t I? Actually it looks rather good.

All in all it was an enjoyable afternoon, and so marvellous to see that it was sold out – there are just so many Pym fans out there.

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This is the second book in the Barbara Pym centenary readalong. I started it a few days early – I’m rebellious like that, and finished yesterday after work, with a smile on my face.

This was the first Barbara Pym novel that I ever read, and I so enjoyed it, that I was really looking forward to re-reading it. I wasn’t at all disappointed, in fact I may have loved it even more this time around.
This was Barbara Pym’s second novel to be published in 1952. Like Some Tame Gazelle much of the novel centres around the high Anglican Church community and people associated with it. The first person narrator is Mildred Lathbury, the daughter of a clergyman, brought up in a country vicarage she is unmarried in her thirties (this is the 1950’s so that’s fairly definitely spinsterish) she lives in a small flat with a shared bathroom close to the Anglican church that she regularly attends.

“Let me hasten to 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, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.”

Also living close by are Father Malory a high Anglican priest who it would appear doesn’t believe in clergy marrying, which many people think a pity – that Mildred would have done very well for him. With Julian Mallory lives his sister Winifred. Julian and Winifred are Mildred’s closest friends. Mildred is apparently one of those “excellent women” who are always available to do good works, help at jumble sales, offer advice, and never marry.

When new neighbours move into the flat below Mildred it opens new horizons for her. The Napiers are rather different; Rockingham Napier has just come out of the Navy and is on his way home from Italy, while his wife Helena, an anthropologist gets the flat ready. Helena is happy to announce that she doesn’t go to church, and talks to Mildred in a way Mildred is unused to. At first Mildred is rather unsure of Helena, not sure she likes her, while she seems to get on well with practised charmer Rockingham. Through Helena Napier Mildred comes to meet Everard Bone, another anthropologist who spends quite a bit of time at the Napier’s flat.
The arrival of these people in Mildred’s life heralds further changes. The attractive widow of a clergyman moves into the flat at the top of the Mallory’s house. With the alarmingly named Allegra Grey come speculation and just a little gossip – among the good women of St. Mary’s. Mildred meanwhile has entered into a slightly peculiar friendship with the Napiers and eventually Everard Bone, as they let her in on their problems, ask her advice and come running up and down to Mildred’s flat with surprising frequency. I am not going to say any more about the plot of this lovely novel – as I know there are a lot of people reading Barbara Pym this year for the centenary – and I don’t want to inadvertently give spoilers.

Barbara Pym’s writing is brilliant, and this is a wonderfully funny and touching story. I must admit to having been brought up in a vicarage – a Methodist one – I don’t practise any religion now – but being brought up with church, jumble sales and morning services are part of my background so I loved the details of jumble sales and endless cups of tea.

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”

It made me a little nostalgic, I laughed at the thought of Father Julian using an old cassock to help do some decorating in. My father would never have done that – I seem to remember they are quite expensive and so I’m fairly sure he never had more than one – and that was only ever worn on Sunday morning. If my father had got involved with decorating – he would have worn an old Harris check shirt and brown cords – rather baggy in the bum. Yet I loved the images of those middle aged ladies and the jumble sales, the flowers and who was to do what “Oh how true, how true” I cried – and actually not so very different to the English Methodist church in the 1970’s and 80’s when I was growing up. This is a delightful novel, witty and actually quite hard to put down. I found it an utter joy, and look forward to hearing what other Pym readers think of this one, whether it’s their first reading of it – or their umpteenth. Let me know if you’ll be reading Excellent Women for our February read a long and if you do – stop by and let me know what you think.

Barbara Pym

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Barbara Pym

As many of you will be aware who regularly read this blog – the Librarything Virago group have been doing a year of Elizabeth Taylor reading in celebration of her centenary in July 2012. This wonderful reading event has been ably hosted by Laura. Now the Elizabeth Taylor readalong has all but finished and the Librarything members have had a great time, and I for one (and I’m sure I’m not alone) will miss it enormously. So we have been looking for another writer “to do” in 2013. As luck would have it Barbara Pym (some of whose novels have been published by Virago) was born in June 1913. So we have ourselves another centenary. However I am not going to be doing a full hosting of this event here, I don’t feel I can commit to anything too big, but I love Barbara Pym and I wanted to help promote this great reading opportunity. I will of course review all Pym novels I read here, in the same way as I review everything else I read, and no doubt I will reference the on-going project in those posts. So this post is merely serving as an introduction, to highlight the project for anyone else who might want to join in with us.
We have elected to read the books in publication order, which is not necessarily the order the books were written – it seemed bp novelsless complicated. I have not actually read all Barbara Pym’s novels, but I have read 10 of the 13 published novels. Yes, thirteen – and thirteen into twelve doesn’t go easily. So I am suggesting the following schedule – with two books during June – the month of Barbara Pym’s centenary. This schedule will require me to do a bit of book buying as I don’t even have copies of all the books I have read. So at some point in the New Year, I will be looking out for the few I don’t have. I can remember really enjoying Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence and No Fond Return of Love particularly, but I am looking forward to reading or re-reading all of them. Luckily the first book we will be reading Some Tame Gazelle, fits into my month of re-reading too.

• January 2013 Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
• February 2013 Excellent Women (1952)
• March 2013 Jane and Prudence (1953)
• April 2013Less than Angels (1955)
• May 2013 A Glass of Blessings (1958)
• June 2013 No Fond Return of Love (1961)
• June 2013Quartet in Autumn (1977)
• July 2013The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
• August 2013 A Few Green Leaves (1980)
• September 2013Crampton Hodnet (completed circa 1940, published 1985)
• October 2013 An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963; published posthumously, 1982)
• November 2013 An Academic Question (written 1970-72; published 1986)
• December 2013 Civil to Strangers (written 1936; published posthumously, 1989)

So if you have not read any Barbara Pym before, and would like to try one, what can you expect?
Barbara Pym novels are sort of social comedies, usually set in small middle class communities; there are some quite deeper undercurrents in her novels however, although they are very English, her canvases like those of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Taylor are fairly small. North Oxford features strongly in her novels as does London. Barbara Pym examines communities and the relationships between men and women; she particularly seems to examine unrequited love. Her observations of people and their little foibles are quite wry, and delightfully amusing. Anglican Church communities figure largely in her novels as do academics such as anthropologists – Barbara Pym herself worked for some time at the International African Institute, before retiring to Oxfordshire to live with her sister Hilary. Barbara Pym never married, although she did have several love affairs. Her first published novel came in 1950 with Some Tame Gazelle. Between 1963 and 1977 despite her former popularity Barbara Pym found she was unable to get her work published, as her novels were by this time considered old fashioned. Following a campaign led by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin her novel Quartet in Autumn was published, re-launching her career and bringing Barbara Pym to a whole new audience. Barbara Pym died of cancer in 1980. Following her death some of her early previously unpublished work was also published.
I have been today made aware of a Barbara Pym centenary conference taking place in July. I certainly hope to be there, as I know Liz does. The Elizabeth Taylor centenary day in Reading last April – was one of the highlights of 2012 for me.


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