Sunday 3 August 2014

Getting Round to Barbara Pym

I vaguely remember dipping into Barbara Pym back in the late Seventies, around the time her then neglected work was acclaimed by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the TLS and her career was instantly revived. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about - and I could dimly discern it, but felt Pym's novels weren't really for me. This was probably because I was too young. Now that I am considerably more laden with years, I have finally got round to having a proper crack at Barbara Pym - and I have to report that Larkin and Cecil were bang on the money: she's brilliant.
 This judgment is formed on the basis of just one novel (so far), but I can't remember when I last got so much sheer pleasure from a novel as I did from Jane And Prudence (published 1953). Through much of the book, there was barely a paragraph that didn't make me smile, outwardly or inwardly, or laugh out loud. Pym's eye for the ridiculous is unfailing and her prose is wondrously supple and nuanced. An extremely deft craftswoman, she does just what is needed and no more - enough to bring her characters alive, place them in their world, and set the plot spinning. Her eye is clear but never cruel, even though there is really rather little to commend any of the characters - especially the men, who are a sorry bunch.
 The reader's sympathy is generally with Jane, an Oxford graduate who had thought of being an academic but married a nice, rather dull vicar. With her gracelessness, dreadful clothes - she dresses as if she's going out to feed the chickens - and habit of coming out with wildly inappropriate, if well-meaning, contributions to any conversation, she put me in mind of Miranda (Miranda Hart's comic alter ego, that is - not Shakespeare's Miranda). You can't help but like her, though you probably wouldn't want to meet her.
 There is rather less to be said for her more glamorous friend Prudence, who was at the same Oxford college but is a decade or so younger and unmarried (at the age of 29, which seems dangerously close to old maidhood in 1953). She seems to spend her life in a state of romantic self-delusion, drifting from one unsuitable and/or uninterested man to the next. Her unerring instinct for these (steered by the well-meaning Jane) leads her inevitably to the supine, dangerously handsome widower Fabian Driver, the novel's best comic creation, who's at the centre of most of the funniest and most excruciating scenes.
 Also at the centre of things, at all times, is food: the action takes place against a daily round of cooked breakfasts, three-course lunches, cooked dinners and bedtime drinks (Ovaltine!) - not to mention the morning and afternoon tea and biscuits (or cakes) that are the main focus of purposeful activity in the office where Prudence works (if that isn't too strong a word). Meat - still on the ration in 1953 - is a constant preoccupation, because 'The men must have their meat', although, as one character darkly hints (to Jane's bemused dismay), they only really want 'one thing'.
 This endless round of meals and snacks - how come there was no 'obesity epidemic' in those days? (see also Bowen) - and the leisurely pace of working life are among many things that remind us of how hugely different the England of 60 years ago was from the rushed, food-foraging, TV dinner present. Another is the preoccupation with religious identity. This is a world in which everybody (apart from a few oddballs) is a church-goer, and questions of High and Low are very much alive. It is also a world in which people read poetry - Prudence will sit over lunch reading Coventry Patmore(!), and Jane is forever quoting, or at least thinking of, lines from the Metaphysical poets (her speciality). This poetical vein running through the novel gives it a very distinctive flavour and hints at unexpected depths...
 I read Jane And Prudence in a Virago Modern Classics paperback adorned with a wildly inappropriate chicklit-style jacket and prefaced with a gushing introduction by Jilly Cooper. But the back of that garish jacket carries this endorsement by Anne Tyler: 'Barbara Pym is the rarest of treasures; she reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.' That, I think, is exactly right.


  1. Sterling recommendation Nige. It's on the kindle already and I'm in Berlin. Isn't technology wonderful?

  2. Yes, and you'll avoid the chicklit cover too!