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Answers to Go with Susan Smith

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Q. Because I love Jane Austen, a friend thought I’d like the novels of Barbara Pym. When I read an author for the first time, I like to start with their best book. With that in mind, which book should I read first?

A . For this question, I turned to a reference set on literature, “Critical Survey of Long Fiction,” edited by Frank Magill.

That essay is fascinating, but I want to provide the answer to this reader’s question before going on to Barbara Pym’s career.

At several points, the Magill essay singles out Pym’s “Excellent Women.” One critic described this book as the most "felicitous" of all of her novels. The book explores the complications of being a religious spinster in a rundown part of London near Victoria Station in the 1950s. In the quiet comfort of this world, everything is within walking distance and a new face is an occasion for speculation.

Here’s a quote from Pym: “Life was like that for most of us — the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”

The Magill essay begins: “Pym was a writer of distinctive qualities who, having suffered neglect for 15 years, was rediscovered toward the end of her life, to take her rightful place as a novelist of considerable originality and force.

“Often compared favorably with Jane Austen’s novels, Pym’s are essentially those of a private, solitary individual, employing precise social observation, understatement, and gentle irony in an oblique approach to such universal themes as the underlying loneliness and frustrations of life, culture as a force for corruption, love thwarted or satisfied, and the power of the ordinary to sustain and protect both men and women.

“Like Austen, she has no illusions about herself and very few about other people.”

The essay continues with the story of Pym’s early achievements, her long enforced silence, and her remarkable rediscovery. Between 1949 and 1962, while working as an editorial assistant at the International African Institute, Pym wrote a novel every two years. Her first six novels established her style, enjoyed a following among library readers, and were well-received by reviewers. “Excellent Women,” was her most popular novel.

Then in 1963, Pym mailed her publisher a seventh novel, “An Unsuitable Attachment.” A short time later, it was returned: times, she was told, had changed. The ‘swinging sixties’ had no place for her gently ironic comedies about unconventional middle-class people leading outwardly uneventful lives.

Being a woman of determination and a certain modest confidence in herself, Pym went to work on an eighth novel. Twenty publishers turned it down. Humiliated and frustrated, she began to feel that her new books were no good, and that nothing she had ever written had been good.

A renaissance in Pym’s fortunes came with startling suddenness in 1977, when, to celebrate three-quarters of a century of existence, The Times Literary Supplement invited a number of well-known writers to name the most over-and underrated novelists of the century.

Both poet Philip Larkin and literary historian Lord David Cecil — for years staunch admirers of hers — selected Pym as having been too long neglected, the only living writer to be so distinguished in the Times poll.

Larkin praised her “unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of every life.” Cecil called her early books “the finest example of high comedy to have appeared in England in this century.”

The publicity surrounding the article, not surprisingly, had positive effects on Pym’s reputation.

The Magill essay continues: “Pym’s novels are distinguished by an unobtrusive but perfectly controlled style, a concern with ordinary people and ordinary events, and a constant aim to be readable, to entertain in a world that is uniquely her own.

“They are also distinguished by a low-key but nevertheless cutting treatment of assumptions of masculine superiority and other sexist notions — all this well in advance of the women’s movement.

“Middle-aged or elderly ladies and gentleman, civil servants, clergymen, anthropologists and other academics—these are the people about whom Pym develops her stories. Central characters from one novel appear in passing or are briefly mentioned in another. Delightful minor characters turn up in unexpected places.

“The world in which Pym’s characters live, whether urban or provincial is also a quiet world — evoked in such detail as to make the reader feel the action could not possibly take place anywhere else.”

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