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