Miss Pym the Novelist
Until the British Library (the British Council Library then) opened in Bangalore, I survived on borrowed books. The British Library, when it came, gave me four books at a time to take home to read. This was riches. I was a fairly adventurous reader and plunged with equal joy into the books of both known and unknown authors. Barbara Pym was one of the writers I read in those early years in the British Library. Much later, when I had a Kindle, I read all the books of this author whose writing had, from her first novel on, intrigued me. She seemed to be writing of an earlier time, though the dates of publication made them out to be post-war novels. Again, the themes were rather ‘unworldly’ for the time, centring round the Church and parish activities. She wrote of a world peopled with vicars, rectors and curates, and men and women (mainly women) whose lives revolved round the Church and the clergy. To an outsider and a non-Christian like me, the Church and its character (High? Low? Anglican? Roman?), as well as the rituals, remained a mystery. But it didn’t really matter; I read, as avid readers do, for the story and the characters. Pym’s novels breathed ‘Englishness’, tea-making, tea-drinking, jumble sales, and Church festivals being very much part of them. What gave the novels an interesting twist was that the author, Barbara Pym, seemed to look at the world she had created and the men and women she wrote about with a kind of reflective ironic gaze. This, as well as the very English humour that permeated the novels, lifted them out of the mundane. I was also fascinated by the way her characters criss-crossed through different novels. Almost like Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, in which characters move across different novels. Trollope, too, gave the Church and the clergy much importance. But Trollope’s novels, his characters, even his humour have a conscious gravitas, not the light butterfly touch of Pym’s writing.
|Barbara Pym with her cat, Minerva, in her garden|
Philip Larkin, a major poet of this time, who had read and admired Pym’s novels, wrote to her saying that he would like to write on her work. It was time, he thought, for a breakthrough for her, ‘that would establish her among the few novelists recognised as having original voices’. Pym, however, wrote back to say that a better time for him to write on her work would be when her seventh novel came out.
Which never happened. Cape rejected the novel An Unsuitable Attachment. It was a bitter blow. A ‘year of blows, violence and death,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Cape has rejected my novel’. It was, she thought, like being told that someone does not love you. To Larkin she wrote that she was very upset, that she thought Cape had treated her very badly. Larkin sympathised. He called it a ‘wounding experience’ to be rejected by a publisher who had published six of her novels until then, and with whom she had been for thirteen years. Pym kept sending the novel ‘on its rounds’, as she called it (better than lying at home, she thought), but all the publishers she sent it to rejected it. She had written another novel in the meantime, The Sweet Dove Died, which met with the same fate. She was puzzled. Perhaps this novel (An Unsuitable Attachment) was much worse than her other novels? But they didn’t say so! The only reason the publishers offered was that they did not think that the sales of the book would cover the cost of production. It was, after all, London of the Swinging Sixties.
Pym bravely shouldered the blame for the failure of An Unsuitable Attachment; she thought it was not the times that were wrong, it was she who had failed as a writer. Perhaps her novels were ‘altogether too mild’ for present tastes. She took up the task of ‘improving’ (her word) the novels, ruthlessly cutting out characters, and making the novels less cosy. She herself recognised cosy-ness as an unwelcome feature of her novels.
The rewriting didn’t help. A second round of submitting the books to publishers only resulted in more rejections. And in any case, she could not make the novels entirely different. She had decided, years earlier, what sort of novels she would write. Even at this time, when she so sorely needed an affirmation of her talent, she could not change. ‘Be more wicked’, her agent advised her. She did try. Leonora, in The Sweet Dove Died, is a vain woman, full of herself, wanting male admiration and manipulating men to get it from them. But Leonora changes in the course of the novel when she loses her young lover James, and is left only with the older man Humphrey, whose courting is formulaic: flowers, taking her out to dinner, some words of praise. One feels sympathy for Leonora at the end.
Barbara Pym has at times been compared to Jane Austen. The similarities, though superficial, are obvious. But Pym herself called the comparison ‘mild blasphemy’. She admired Austen greatly. ‘Oh if only the dust of her genius would rub off on me,’ she sighed when she visited Austen’s home. She writes of having read the last chapters of Austen’s novels to find out how she tied up the loose ends. Perhaps, if she had read Austen’s little-known Lady Susan, she would have seen the perfect picture of a wicked woman. Lady Susan, Austen’s only femme fatale, is evil, she is manipulative and self-seeking, ready to sacrifice her own daughter for her nefarious purposes. At no time does she falter in her wickedness. Pym could never have created a Lady Susan. Actually, she didn’t need to. I wonder if any other reader has felt the uneasiness I did in Pym’s No Fond Return of Love with Dulcie Mainwaring’s habit of stalking the men who interest her, mainly because they are good-looking. She stalks, not only the man she finds attractive, but his brother and mother well. And Dulcie is one of Pym’s ‘excellent women’!
As An Unsuitable Attachment and The Sweet Dove Died kept getting rejections, different reasons being given each time, she began losing confidence in herself. For a writer, this confidence is the one thing which keeps her going, it is the plank on which she stands. Without it, she can fall into a deep dark hole. Earlier, when Pym had been told that eight American and ten Continental publishers had rejected her novel, she had taken it lightly. ‘Feeling a little bruised’, she had written. ‘So humble yourself Miss Pym and do not put on any airs.’
This time, Pym was depressed. She felt no publisher would ever publish her again. She had lost confidence in her very ability to write. She felt she was doomed to failure, to sink into obscurity. She considered giving up writing. How restful it would be, she thought, never to write another word! But don’t ever believe a writer who swears she will stop writing. Pym always ended with a kind of disclaimer. Like, ‘Perhaps I will go on’. After ‘I doubt whether I shall ever publish another novel’, she wrote, ‘though I am certainly at work on something’. And again, ‘I can still write even if my type of novel is no longer publishable.’ And once, ‘I feel I will never write again, though perhaps I will eventually.’ This cautious optimism kept her going through seventeen years of silence when she published nothing. But it was not easy. She wrote in her diary, ‘Writing is no longer the great pleasure it used to be. I am no longer so certain of a glorious future as I used to be. But I still feel I may ultimately succeed.’
Finally, after twenty-one rejections, she said ‘enough!’. She would no longer send her novels out. Larkin succinctly described her plight: for ten years she had been a writer; now she was not. She had come up against a wall of indifference, as immovable as inexplicable. Only a writer will understand what it means to know that no one is going to publish you. To write without the incentive of publication seems pointless. Not to have a book out every few years makes the writer invisible. But Pym had made up her mind. What she wrote henceforth would not be submitted to publishers; she would write for her own pleasure and that of a few friends.
And then it happened, what Philip Larkin called an ‘extraordinary accident’. The Times Literary Supplement asked noted writers to say who they considered the most over-rated and the most under-rated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to get two mentions: Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil (historian and biographer) both named her as the most under-rated writer. Suddenly everything changed for her. Macmillan accepted her new novel, the one she had been writing for her own pleasure. Cape, with whom she was still sore, reissued all her earlier novels. There was a plan of bringing them all out in paperbacks. Pym was invited to literary events, she was interviewed, her books were written about, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. And, in an irony which could easily be part of Pym’s own novels, Quartet in Autumn, the novel she had decided not to get published, was short-listed for the Booker.
Pym’s own response to all this is very ‘writerly’. The main thing is that I am now regarded as a writer. A good feeling after years of ‘This is well-written but…’
The Sweet Dove Died, which had had a long list of rejections, was also ‘gratifyingly’ well received. Enough ‘balm to soothe the hurt of earlier years,’ Pym wrote.
The New York Times published a feature on her under the headline ‘Forever being forgotten, forever revived’. Apart from the exaggeration of this statement, the article spoke of her novels as romantic comedies, commented on the unsexy milieu of her books and recalled how her publishers had unceremoniously dumped her. But there is much more to Pym’s story than what these rather unfortunately chosen facts by the New York Times add up to. There is Pym’s grit and persistence. One rejection is enough to fell a writer. Pym had to cope with over twenty rejections! Of course, she was angry, specially with Cape. To critics who spoke of her ‘obsession with trivials’, she retorted, ‘What are the minds of the critics filled with? What noble and more worthwhile things?’
What is equally remarkable is Larkin’s championship of Pym. They were not friends, not acquaintances even, when he first wrote to her. They corresponded regularly after that, but met only much later. Larkin believed in her writing; he, a noted poet of the time, encouraged her, gave her back her faith in her own writing, he referred her to publishers he knew, including his own. I would imagine it was rare even then to have an established writer do all this for a still struggling one.
Larkin met the Chairman of Cape some time after all this happened and asked him about the reason for the rejection of Pym’s novels. ‘Neither then, nor at any time since, has this company rejected a manuscript for commercial reasons, notwithstanding the literary merit of the book.’ Larkin quotes these words of the Chairman in his introduction to Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, which was finally published only after Pym’s death.
Why did Cape reject the book? It was the unfavourable review of two readers which made them decide against publishing the book, the Chairman replied.
Larkin still had a question. Was there no one in Cape who would talk to Pym, tell her that they had enjoyed publishing her, that they would like to go on publishing her? No one to tell her what was wrong with the book and that it needed to be revised?
Pym’s story is important because there is a question in it that all struggling writers, young or old, grapple with at one time or another, a question that is always present in writers’ minds. This question is: what makes a book acceptable to a publisher? What is the secret? Pym’s story is even more complicated because the publishers accepted the very books they had so summarily rejected. What had changed? If the words of the Chairman, that commercial reasons were not what weighed against Pym’s novel, were true, it would mean that the novel was flawed in some way. Larkin, in his Introduction, admits that An Unsuitable Attachment has certain faults. Were the flaws overlooked subsequently? Besides, did the words of two writers count for so much? Does a novel need endorsements? And what about the original voice Larkin had spoken of in connection with Pym’s writing? If not the publisher, who was to recognise it? Do publishers set the trend, or do they follow the trend? (Pym herself said, ‘Publishers should have the courage to be unfashionable’. One guesses she was talking of trends.) We know that readers differ as much in their literary tastes as they do in other matters. There are always some readers for every book. It is only the phenomenon of the best-seller that seems intent on reducing different tastes of readers to one monolithic one. That publishers cannot ignore the commercial factor when they accept a book is a known fact. All writers know and accept it. It is not a coincidence that Pym, in her diary, after noting that a second publisher had rejected her novel, wrote in the very next line of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer selling 60,000 books on the first day (Tropic of Cancer was a book of great sexual explicitness).
What made me, a reader, enjoy Pym was her humour. The early novels, Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle are at times hilarious. Pym herself called Crampton Hodnet as ‘rather funny’. Hazel Holt, her friend and literary executor, says that you could not read Crampton Hodnet without laughing out loud, even if you were in the Bodleian, the Oxford library. This humour was part of her, even in her personal life. (She spoke of wanting a husband only when in a pub in the midst of uncongenial company and a feeling of not belonging.) And, whatever the New York Times may have said, romantic her books are certainly not. The passionate young woman that Pym was in her early years, as her diaries show, is nowhere in her books. Love in Pym’s novels is fleeting, ephemeral, evanescent, like Wilmet’s for Piers, her friend’s brother in A Glass of Blessings. Wilmet, a happily married woman, falls in love (‘I was in the kind of exalted mood when all one’s sensibilities seem to be sharpened’), and just as quickly falls out of it, without a jerk. As for Belinda and Harriet, the two sisters in Some Tame Gazelle, Pym writes about Belinda’s love for the Archdeacon (whom she had loved when they were fellow students) and Harriet’s for young curates, with a wry humour. Nobody really suffers for love in her novels, except perhaps Catherine in Less Than Angels, in whom we get a glimpse of suffering when her lover, Tom, brazenly deserts her for a younger woman, when he goes away to Africa and when he dies. But her grief is understated, unspoken.
That Pym’s was even then a vanished world is nowhere more apparent than in her ‘excellent women’. There is irony in the words, because it is male opinion that makes some women ‘excellent women’. These women are self-abnegating, willing to play a subservient role, always there when needed. Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women is a prime example of this type of woman. It is surprising that Pym wrote this in a post-war world when women had come out of their homes and played their roles in the war effort. Barbara Pym herself was a University graduate and she and her sister Hilary earned their own living all their lives. But irony and humour were Pym’s tools. And so, there is Jessie Morrow in Crampton Hodnet, lowly companion and spinster, overlooked and ignored by everyone, but who, by accepting this invisibility with equanimity, in fact, finding it amusing and predictable, rises above victimhood.
Barbara was finally getting the recognition she had longed for. But unfortunately, she did not have much time to enjoy this little burst of fame. The cancer she had had eight years earlier (‘they took away the left bosom!’) recurred and she died in 1980. Hazel Holt, Pym’s colleague in the Institute and her literary executor after her death, quotes Pym’s words in her Introduction to Pym’s novels:
‘Who is that woman sitting on the concrete wall outside Barclay’s Bank reading the TV Times? It is Miss Pym the novelist.’
This identity, this recognition, was what she had wanted all her writing life. It finally came to her, even if just before her death in 1980.
Photograph of Barbara Pym in her garden by Mayotte Magnus (c) The Barbara Pym Society is reproduced with permission.