In Praise of Pym

June 2: The British novelist Barbara Pym was born on this day in 1913. Pym's writing career divides into three stages: considerable success for a handful of novels in the 1950s, a fifteen-year period during which no one would publish her, then—just three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six—sudden rediscovery and international fame. The rediscovery has a specific source: a survey of famous British writers in the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two of the famous writers asked to nominate the most underrated book of the previous seventy-five years picked novels by Pym. Philip Larkin, one of the surveyed writers, put Pym in Jane Austen's league for her ability to keep her reader "always on the verge of smiling." The Austen comparison was recently echoed by Alexander McCall Smith, who singled out Pym's Excellent Women as "one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the 20th century."

 

Pym's Jane and Prudence is set in a very British village, a world of jumble sales, charity fêtes, and tea with the new vicar. Jane, the vicar's wife, is not quite comfortable with her role, though she tries to be dutiful. She first meets many of the prominent parishioners at the decorating of the church for the Harvest Festival, to which Adrian Driver, the village's very eligible tweed-and-brogues widower, arrives bearing a handsome contribution to the altar display:

        "What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver," said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. "It is the biggest one we have so far, isn't it, Miss Morrow?"

         Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

         "It is magnificent," said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

         Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

         Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual whose significance she hardly dared to guess.

Miss Doggett is chief decorator and an elderly spinster; a few chapters on, we find her again trying to sort her men from her marrows: "Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing but had forgotten for the moment what it was."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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