An Academic Question Barbara Pym

Virago, pp.19, 8.99

It is disconcerting to discover that a novelist a generation older than oneself has been trying to write ‘a sort of Margaret Drabble effort’, even if the book ‘hadn’t turned out like that at all’. This is how Barbara Pym described her then unpublished campus novel An Academic Question in 1971 to her friend and admirer Philip Larkin. Naturally I was intrigued to know what she meant.

Pym’s publishing history is well known: between 1950 and 1961 she published six  highly praised novels, and then ran up against a solid rock of refusals. Jonathan Cape dropped her, and she was told her work was out of fashion. Puzzled and down-hearted, she went on writing, somewhat hopelessly, because she couldn’t help it. What else was she to do with her observations, her time,
her talent?

Then, in 1977, she was rediscovered as suddenly and arbitrarily as she had been rejected, and a new if sadly brief period of success followed, launched by the remarkable Quartet in Autumn, an unsparing account of retirement, redundancy and old age, perhaps her finest work. Reprints and posthumous novels followed, and her lasting popularity was assured.

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An Academic Question, assembled from drafts and notes by her literary executor Hazel Holt, is not vintage Pym, but it is very entertaining, and contains many of her hallmark subjects — academic wrangles, voyeurism in a ‘neighbourhood of voluntary spies’, shrewd sociological asides on food and manners, a good-looking clergyman ‘at ease in the company of women’, a comfortingly cosy homosexual friend, and one or two characters drawn from earlier works.

But it appears that Pym was also making a conscious effort to engage with the unwelcoming 1970s. Her spokesperson, Caro, is the underemployed wife of an upwardly mobile anthropologist ‘with a slight but pleasing provincial accent’, and mother of a small daughter. We are somewhere in the territory between Lucky Jim (1954) and the astonishing apparition of The History Man (1975), with a bit of Drabble on single motherhood mixed in.

Pym is not good on motherhood, and Caro is a less plausible narrator than the self-deceiving but ultimately self-satisfied wife Wilmet, elegant narrator of The Glass of Blessings. The best character here is Dolly, an elderly protector of hedgehogs, who also sells jumble, and who turns up at a formal university occasion wearing a black velvet bridge coat which Caro speculates ‘may even have come from the dead wife of one of Dolly’s old lovers’. That line is pure Pym.

Pym’s earlier novels record a world where women took secondary roles as typists and assistants, where sisters lived together and wives shared houses with mothers-in-law, where the highlight of social life was dinner for the curate or a sherry party at the office. She was almost perversely fond of the word ‘spinster’. In the Sixties and Seventies, she knew she should try to tackle the changing expectations around her. She was not hostile to change; she observed it and made notes. She always said she would have made a good detective, and she liked looking through windows, eavesdropping at parties, and investigating other people’s taste in food, wine, library books and clothes. But it is not always easy to adapt one’s style to a rapidly shifting world, or to retain confidence in one’s own way of seeing. All writers, as they age, come to experience these doubts. An Academic Question marks a period of doubt.

Pym mentions me several times in letters and journals, and I think I represented for her something in the spirit of the age. The demographic curve was in my favour, and there were a lot of people living lives like mine. She might have found this very annoying. We met once, at the Malvern Writers’ Circle in 1966, but I didn’t know who she was. The last comment she made on my work was in 1979, when she wonderfully wrote that

the enrichment of my own novels may be suggested by my reading of the two latest [Drabble novels]. She gives one almost too much — but I give too little — laziness and unwillingness to do ‘research’ which doesn’t seem to fit my novels.

Yes, I do over-research, and how I wish we had met properly, with time to talk over these matters. One thing she and I share is an irresistible urge to quote poetry in our fiction, often quite inappropriately, a tendency she seems to have restrained in An Academic Question. Was this deliberate? We shall never know, and it’s too late to ask.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel