My thanks to NetGalley and William Collins for a review copy of this book.
I first came across Barbara Pym I think may be ten years ago through an online book group on Shelfari, and I remember the first time I read her (now I really don’t remember which of her books it was I started with), I thought the book too melancholy. But still I tried others and soon began to really enjoy her works, especially the fun she pokes at people, and so many times at the world of academics, and soon enough I began to count her among my favourite authors. So of course when this bio appeared on NetGalley, not having read a bio of her before, I jumped at the chance, and put in a request.
Barbara Pym had a rather interesting life with plenty of ups and downs (a lot more the latter) both in her romantic life and in her career as author, and this book takes us along on Pym’s journey. Opening with a ‘pilgrimage’ she made to her favourite author Jane Austen’s Cottage during one of the toughest periods in her life when her work was rejected for over 16 years by publishers, we go back to get a glimpse of Pym’s childhood and thereafter go along with her as she attends Oxford, is a Wren in the second world war (and travels to Italy), begins her literary career (after a great deal of struggle), then through the 16 years that she was considered too old-fashioned to publish, and finally as her writing career revives. Pym did not have the best luck in love and most of her romances seemed to end in heartbreak for her, and she often ended up pining (perhaps stereotypically) after the wrong person. But she was lucky in her friendships and in the admirers of her work for it was her friends who supported her through life, from critiquing her work and helping her improve it to fighting to get her the recognition she deserved which poet Philip Larkin did for years. But whatever she suffered, whether in her personal life or the rejection in her career, writing was something that was a part of who she was and she never stopped, no matter the outcome in terms of publication which was something I thought really admirable (and perhaps also requiring a certain strength).
The first thing I noticed in this book was the delightfully titled chapters but I couldn’t point my finger to the inspiration behind that until I came to the part where the author Paula Byrne refers to Pym’s love of picaresque novels, and I thought this a lovely touch by Byrne.
The book looks a lot into her romantic life and various entanglements which isn’t something I usually enjoy reading about (as it seems much too intrusive) but in the case of Pym, as Byrne explains and we see later, all of these experiences that Pym went through was where so many of the characters in her stories and even specific scenes and events came from. And this wasn’t confined to only her love life, but her experiences working at the International Africa Society and as assistant editor of the Africa Journal too provided material for so many of her characters (all those anthropologists) and also the fun she pokes at academia. So it was with the experiences living in a bedsit with her sister (this strangely, her first book foretold). And it was really interesting to see how she saw people and things for who they were and how she interpreted them eventually in her writings.
In her life she met and interacted with several other writers including Elizabeth Bowen and developed life-long friendships with Robert (‘Jock’) Liddell and Philip Larkin. In fact, she and Larkin (who admired her works) corresponded for years before they actually met but Larkin put in a lot of effort to help her work get the recognition it deserved, and it was eventually his and Lord David Cecil’s mention of her as England’s most underrated writer that brought attention back to her, and not only did her works begin to be published once more, she was also nominated for a Booker. This after all the hardships she had gone though also makes the reader feel as pleased for her as her friends must have been.
Books too are central to the bio as we see the various books and authors that Pym read and that inspired her from Crome Yellow which heavily influenced her first efforts, to the works of Elizabeth von Arnim, Jane Austen and Ivy Compton-Burnett (among others).
Certain things like the different personas she adopted at different periods and some of her obsessiveness I found somewhat strange but at the same time, Pym certainly had an interesting life, despite its hardships, as a result of which perhaps her works saw her explore themes that were perhaps even ahead of her time, and certainly not in the conventional mould. In many ways, her own story is as interesting and poignant as her books.
Drawn from Pym’s diaries and papers, this book turned out to be a very interesting and enjoyable read. Four and a half stars.
This title releases on 15 April 2021.