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barbara pym5

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.

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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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civiltostrangers

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.

BarbaraPym

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2013-11-09 18.47.50

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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anacademicquestion

Written mainly in the early 1970’s An Academic Question was put together posthumously by Barbara Pym’s biographer and friend Hazel Holt. Maybe because of the way it was essentially compiled – by someone else – from Barbara Pym’s drafts and notes the novel has a very different feel to it. The novel has a light, bright freshness to it and I actually enjoyed it a lot – but it is possibly the least Pymish of her novels. Certainly this novel is more rooted in academia than the Anglican Church, where so many others books are rooted, set among the various inhabitants of a small unnamed University town (although I felt it must be Bath).

“Just as our green Triumph Herald was no longer quite big enough, so the position of lecturer did not give him all the scope he needed. He knew that he was looked on as able and promising, but he was like a card in a game of patience, his moves blocked by cards of higher suit. The one most in his way was Crispin Maynard and, although Alan could not, of course, hope to get his chair when he retired, he felt that once Crispin had gone, his own upward path to progress would be easier. My mother, much addicted to patience (Alan’s mother never had time), would so often wail in a despairing tone, ‘But I can’t get the two – there’s a Black king in the way!”, which exactly expressed Alan’s feelings.”

Caro Grimstone a sometimes bored faculty wife married to the dull slightly ambitious Alan becomes an unwitting accomplice in her husband’s machinations, when she volunteers to read to an elderly man in a care home. The Reverend Stillingfleet has a manuscript – well known about in academic circles – hidden in a box in his room at the nursing home, he has so far not allowed anyone to see it. As the Stillingfleet papers concern the very subject that ethno-historian Alan Grimstone is interested – he takes the opportunity to accompany Caro on one of her visits so he can help himself to the manuscript. Alan intends to use Stillingfleet‘s work in a paper he himself is writing. Alan is tremendously excited about the paper and what it might mean for him. Caro is instantly a little uneasy about her complicity in Alan’s theft – and later takes a part time library job in order to secrete the manuscript away with other Stillingfleet papers. The data that Alan has access to gives him a huge advantage over his academic rivals and in the run up to his paper’s publication Alan finds he has to defend his position as his rivals start to suspect the origin of his information.

“Dolly had remained single, though she had always given me to understand that her life had not been without love. But now, in her sixties, she had grown away from human beings and only kept in touch with her former lovers for practical and material advantages; she was more moved by the sight of a hedgehog’s little leg raised to scratch itself than by any memory of a past love. These same hedgehogs were one of the reasons Dolly never went away. The habit of staying at home had its origin, she told me in a quarrel with a neighbour who had refused to put food out for the hedgehogs during Dolly’s absence.”

An Academic Question is set in a more modern world than many of her earlier novels. The world in which these characters exist feels more real, and although definitely less Pymish there are still examples of Pym’s wit, the absurdities of life which Barbara Pym always highlights so beautifully. The meshing of the modern world and the Pymish world is slightly uneasy to some Pym fans perhaps, there is an extra marital affaire; talk of abortion alongside the petty jealousies of academics, an elderly woman who keeps hedgehogs and the endless question of what to wear to dinner parties. I always love Pym’s characters – and in An Academic Question there several characters of a Pymish bent to enjoy – including the wonderful Sister Dew – who we first meet in An Unsuitable Attachment, and Dolly – the keeper of hedgehogs, and Caro’s friend Coco and his mother kitty (Dolly’s sister), constantly reminiscing about their days on “the island” – in the Caribbean from where they originally come. An Academic Question is an enjoyable novel, the difference in tone – it feels lighter as well as more modern – surely makes it interesting enough to Pym fans – however it is an enjoyable novel too. I really liked the gentle ending of this novel, the feeling of things carrying on –in a seasonal kind of way – not unlike an academic year I suppose.

Barbara Pym

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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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An unsuitable attachments

The latest read in the Librarything Virago group Barbara Pym read-a-long is An Unsuitable attachment. Published in 1982 two years after her death, it was actually written in the early 1960’s – and was rejected by Cape in 1963, this was the beginning of the period when Barbara Pym was unable to get published. Inexplicably Barbara Pym found herself in the literary wilderness, having been widely popular for ten years – publishing seven novels – suddenly she was no longer wanted. Hurt and confused as she was, Pym never gave up writing. Thankfully in 1977 when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil independently of each other named Barbara Pym as being one of the most underrated novelists almost overnight Barbara Pym found her work back in vogue. In his forward to my little Granada edition Philip Larkin maintains that due to its “undiminished high spirits” we should regard ‘An unsuitable Attachment’ as belonging to Pym’s “first and principal group of novels.” As always Barbara Pym is wonderful at highlighting those small everyday absurdities; such as buying fish and chips for one’s wife and her cat.

“FRING TONIGHT. ROCK SALMON – SKATE – PLAICE.’ Mark Ainger read from the roughly chalked – up notice in the steamy window. Which would Sophia prefer? he asked himself. And which would tempt Faustina’s delicate appetite? Rock salmon – that had a noble sound about it, though he believed it was actually inferior to real salmon. “

An unsuitable Attachment is recognisably Barbara Pym – clergymen, anthropologists, librarians and spinsters concern themselves with who may or may not fancy who and whether they are “suitable” all set against a backdrop of an Anglican Church year. Anthropologist Rupert Stonebird a single man in his mid-thirties moves to a house in a North London suburb, close to the church of St. Basil and close too, to the home of Vicar Mark Ainger, his wife Sophia and their cat Faustina – upon whom Sophia lavishes an increasingly ridiculous amount of attention. Sophia immediately considers Rupert as being a potentially suitable husband for her younger sister Penelope. However also new to the street is Ianthe Broome the daughter of a Canon and niece to an Archdeacon, a librarian, who is at the centre of the Unsuitable Attachment of the title. The young man for who Ianthe nurses an affection is John, who works with her at the library – he is five years younger than her, lives in a rented bedsit in the wrong part of London, isn’t even a fully qualified librarian and then borrows money from her. All this is supposed to demonstrate how very unsuitable John is – but somehow this unsuitable relationship never really feels unsuitable enough to justify the title. Philip Larkin wryly suggests that the true unsuitable attachment in the novel could be that of Sophia and her cat Faustina – I like that idea.

“Sophia realized that she was tired and closed her eyes, as if by so doing she could shut out further tortuous imaginings. She decided to meditate on Faustina, to try to picture what she would be doing at this moment. Various little scenes came into her mind – Faustina at her dish, her head on one side, vigorously chewing a piece of meat; sitting upright and thumping her tail, demanding for the door to be opened; reposing on a bed, curled up in a circle; sharpening her claws on the leg of an armchair – so many of these pictures brought the cat before her, so that she could almost smell her fresh furry smell and her warm sweet breath.”

Unusually for Barbara Pym, in this novel she takes her characters away to Rome – where the group run into a young clergyman who was once Ianthe’s father’s curate, who is accompanying two elderly sisters, named the Misses Bede (Some Tame Gazelle) on a tour of the city. The re-appearance of characters from previous books is certainly something Pym readers are used to – and there are plenty to spot in this one.
Although not Barbara Pym’s best novel – it is still an enjoyable read – you know where you are with Barbara Pym, and I really like that, there is something recognisably comforting and reassuring about Pym’s world, that I will probably never really tire of.

Barbara Pym

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crampton hodnet

Although not published until 1985, five years after her death, Crampton Hodnet was one of Barbara Pym’s earliest completed novels, written in about 1939. During the war, when Barbara Pym was involved in war work like so many other people, the novel already finished, was laid aside. After the war she concentrated on novels like Some Tame Gazelle. I think it is because of it having been written during this period, that Crampton Hodnet felt so much like vintage Pym territory. It doesn’t have quite the perfection of some of her other novels, but there is so much that is recognisably familiar in the world of Crampton Hodnet (which confusingly not a real place – but more of an idea, a joke between Miss Morrow and Stephen Latimer) that it could only have been written by Barbara Pym. This was yet another re-read for me, but I hadn’t remembered it all that well.

“There are no sick people in North Oxford. They are either dead or alive. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all.”

Crampton Hodnet is a marvellously comic period piece set in the genteel academic community of North Oxford in the 1930’s. Here we are reunited with Miss Jesse Morrow and Miss Dogget from (possibly my favourite Pym) Jane and Prudence. Companion to elderly Miss Doggett, Jessie Morrow content to think of herself as “unworldly” is briefly pursued by clergyman Stephen Latimer, who upon establishing himself in Miss Doggett’s house, thinks he really could “do worse than” Jesse Morrow. Meanwhile naive student Barbara Bird begins a highly idealistic entanglement with her tutor – Oxford don – Francis Cleveland a middle aged married man, whose daughter Anthea is having a slightly unsatisfactory romance of her own. Utterly charming, this is a sharp, bright novel; chock full of shuffling academics, clergymen, gossipy old spinsters, gay men and unsuitable attachments.

Francis Cleveland, a middle-aged, dull academic is rather surprised to find himself the focus of an attractive young woman’s affections, although poor little Barbara Bird’s ideas of romance appear to be a mixture of eighteenth century poetry and platonic love. Francis is bored, often feeling excluded from the world his wife Margaret and daughter Anthea inhabits.

“Margaret Cleveland, who had at one time helped and encouraged her husband with his work, had now left him to do it alone, because she feared that with her help it might easily be finished before one of them died, and then where would they be?”

Neither of these two unlikely romantics have any idea of how to conduct a romantic intrigue – the odd chaste kiss, a bottle of wine but no corkscrew, a hastily abandoned trip away together – they are each in their different ways innocents. Anthea Cleveland’s infatuation for the insufferable ambitious Simon Beddoes – is just as unsuitable as her father’s ridiculous attachment to one of his students, while handsome Stephen Latimer is rejected by the sensible Miss Morrow, and goes off to Paris with a friend. Miss Doggett who considers herself at the centre of this community watches all the goings on in North Oxford with concern. Much to Jesse Morrow’s dismay Miss Doggett insists on involving herself in the situation with Francis Cleveland (her nephew) and Barbara Bird – which has given rise to a lot of unfortunate gossip.

Written with Barbara Pym’s wonderful wit and superb eye for the ridiculous, it is a joy of a read. There is something truly comforting about the world of Barbara Pym, which I can’t ever tire of. I am sure that there is quite a lot of the real Barbara Pym in the young bookish Barbara Bird, and maybe a little of her in the older sensible Jesse Morrow too – though one could never call Barbara Pym “unworldly” she was far too switched on for that.

Barbara Pym

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