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A singular voice

Barbara Pym, now thought of as a reliable and popular novelist of the 1950s and 1960s, has almost disappeared from sight, overshadowed by the more explicit and confessional writers we are accustomed to reading today.

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

Civil to Strangers and Other Writings Barbara Pym, with an introduction by Hazel Holt

Virago, pp.400, 8.99

Barbara Pym, now thought of as a reliable and popular novelist of the 1950s and 1960s, has almost disappeared from sight, overshadowed by the more explicit and confessional writers we are accustomed to reading today. Indeed her eclipse was sudden and unforeseen: her mature novels were rejected by three major publishers when she was only midway through her career, and it was only through the generous comments of two of her admirers, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, that she was brought again to public attention.

That her admirers in this instance were men rather than women was a more than welcome reversal of her perceived appeal to a public composed mainly of readers much like herself: domestic ironists of no great ambition but some accomplishment, with a perceptible debt to Jane Austen. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that the writer who initially inspired her was Aldous Huxley, yet there was always a steely reserve there and also an effortless style which ensured a loyal readership willing, or indeed happy, to overlook the somewhat limited boundaries of her fictional world: few worldly intrusions, many clerics, and above all a good-natured assumption of virtue.

When she died in 1980 she was easily relegated to the past, yet she was no sheltered spinster; she worked in an office until she retired and voiced no complaints about the differing demands of her inner and outer lives. She seems to have been a confident and contented woman, with a steady belief in her own ability. She never married, and is easily dismissed as unworldly, but this is a false assumption. She has the same emotional register as her more sophisticated contemporaries, surpassing them in matters of tact and modesty, qualities now almost extinct both on and off the page.

Her best known novels stand up very well to modern scrutiny, as does Civil to Strangers, written in 1936 but first published in 1987, some years after her death. Today there are Barbara Pym societies in both England and America: both John Updike and Shirley Hazzard have voiced their approval and even admiration. Civil to Strangers forms the bulk of this volume and is designed to appeal to readers unacquainted with her peculiar gifts: a relentlessly bracing style, a closed secure world, and a conviction that no great harm will befall her characters, all of them recognisable from her other novels.


Civil to Strangers is markedly distant, a formulaic ladies’ novel which must have had an archaic appeal even when it was brought out by Virago in 1987. It contains standard Pym ingredients: a small town or village background, a vicar and a curate, a pompous husband, reliable servants and substantial meals. The heroine, Cassandra, is a submissive wife with no identifiable frustrations. Life is safe but dull, until an intriguing foreigner moves into a nearby house. He is the object of appalled fascination for a couple of unmarried girls, although he has eyes only for the chastely married Cassandra.

There is one departure from the expected norm: with a desire to introduce some life into her insipid husband, Cassandra announces that she intends to take a holiday in Budapest. It is assumed by all the participants that she is running off with the foreigner, Mr Tilos, who is Hungarian, but her husband follows her and no recriminations ensue. The novel ends as it should, with all the customary virtues — duty, conformity, marital fidelity — firmly in place.

Pym’s novels are like the well-run households with which she provides her characters. There are no solecisms: an almost miraculous order prevails. She quotes freely from the metaphysical poets, but her prose is unadorned, workmanlike. By the same token, her characters make no overt bids for our sympathy. Men are either domestic animals or glamorous outsiders. Women are either obedient conformists or on the lookout for those on the other side of the great divide.

Prudence, in Jane and Prudence, is just such a one, setting her sights on Mr Gramp-ian, with no greater success than she has previously enjoyed with other unavailable men. But it is her friend Jane, the vicar’s wife, who makes exertions on her behalf, clumsily, humorously and wrong-headedly. And it is Jane who is thought to be the more appealing character. Their friendship is a loyal one, and loyalty is the quality most resonant in Barbara Pym’s novels. Her codes are essentially old-fashioned, and it is this factor perhaps that has ensured her status. That, and her belief in what she is writing, with no thought of a more malleable and possibly less formulaic alternative.

This volume also contains unpublished material, a novel, three novellas and, most revealing of all, the text of a talk she gave on Radio 4 in 1980, entitled Finding a Voice. This she seems to have had no difficulty in achieving. Her tone — dry, detached, almost elegant — was perhaps instinctive. It is apparent that she always wanted to be a writer and was single-minded in this pursuit. She makes no mention of her contemporaries, not even the arguably superior Elizabeth Taylor, also resurrected by Virago. She was, quite simply, dedicated to her own gifts. Never an obvious stylist she is nevertheless inseparable from her own manner of writing. That ‘voice’ that she sought is what makes her so singular.

A niggling doubt as to her importance is countered by the suavity and consistency of her output. She achieved what she most prized, her status as an unmistakable, and unmistakably English writer, a descendant of Jane Austen and Ivy Compton-Burnett and yet an original in her own right. Her appeal — and it is considerable — is to the desire, perhaps inherent in every reader, for a good outcome and a tidy ending, both of which she provides, time after time.


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