Barbara Pym's Unsentimental Eye

Admirers of Barbara Pym have several regrets. The greatest is that there aren't more of her novels. Pym would undoubtedly have written more had she lived longer, for her death in 1980 occurred at a time of renewed productivity. She certainly would have written more had she not suffered 14 years of publishers' rejections.

Pym's novels have a flavor all their own. "It is now possible to describe a place, a situation or a person as Very Barbara Pym,'" writes editor Hazel Holt in the preface to Pym's letters and diaries. The initially striking thing about the novels is their quaint, "dated" quality. Set in and around London in the decades after the Second World War, they are filled with churchgoing spinsters, dowdy clergymen's wives, and busy "excellent women" (a phrase she used as a title); Pym writes about less-than-glamorous, often charmingly befuddled people.

Though most are light and satirical, the novels all have an underlying sense of resignation and defeat. Even with her first published and most cheerful novel, Some Tame Gazelle, a sense of cramped lives and forgone opportunities underlies the comedy. And the feeling only grows as we read the later works. Although there is little desperation or longing expressed in the novels, her protagonists convey an incompleteness and a partial failure that gives them a special appeal.

It is possible to trace...

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