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On Barbara Pym, the Grande Dame of Unfairly Neglected Writers

Jane and Prudence

I just read my first Barbara Pym novel and was bowled over by its subtle truths. Pym wrote in the fifties, disappeared for a decade; interest in her revived briefly in the seventis and then she slipped from library bookshelves once more. There have been a couple of mini-revivals since then but she always seems in danger of disappearing forever and that would be a shame. The author’s bio of Pym on the back of my copy of Jane and Prudence accuses her of writing primarily about “Anglican spinsters.” The phrase itself seems like it’s from another age, and so does this novel about middle class British women making their way through the immediate postwar years. But that’s what makes it so amazing.

Pym’s women are intelligent and educated, and ambitious in their own way, but they never quite break free of their nineteen-fifties views of what women are meant to occupy themselves with–mainly, the occupation of finding a man to marry. Prudence might rebel against that fate, but she doesn’t rebel in a very serious way. Even if she doesn’t seem particularly attracted to marriage, her ambition goes no further than a series of romantic attachments with men, and she can’t imagine a life beyond the meaning these men give to her life.

Pym’s publisher dropped her abruptly in 1961 and she was out of print for fifteen years, which seems just about right, because her novels had no place in the decade of The Feminine Mystique. But going back to the novels after that turbulent era also seems right, because they capture a post-WWII mood so perfectly, and they are testaments to that time, and that world.

Many Pym readers are reminded of Jane Austen. I also felt that affinity, especially for the deft use of free indirect style, and the subtle bombs Pym crams into each paragraph, critiquing of the middle class and its values. But it’s a darker vision than Jane Austen, because these women know how silly their lives are, and how wasted their talents are, in a world that affords them so few choices. So where Austen’s novels are comedy-of-manners, Pym’s novels are tragedy-of-manners. You feel the loss of what these women might have become, in other circumstances.

Pym is a new and unexpected favorite author for me.

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