Barbara Pym’s name is certainly not as well-known as it deserves to be, even to graduates of her former Oxford college, St Hilda’s. As a writer, she was somewhat unappreciated in her lifetime, but the story of her literary career is one that other writers, as well as readers, have found particularly inspiring. More recently, St Hilda’s has embraced her as one of its most notable alumnae by hosting the annual conference of the Barbara Pym Society, effectively becoming the society’s UK base.
Early life and Oxford
Pym was one of two particularly eminent writers born in Oswestry (the other being Wilfred Owen), but it was as an undergraduate at Oxford that she experienced the new friendships and failed romances that would give her the material for her early novels and set her on a path towards the production of a series of works that have given huge enjoyment to many. Her fans have included celebrities as diverse as Alexander McCall Smith, Jilly Cooper, and the Reverend Richard Coles.
Female undergraduates in the Oxford of the early 1930s were still vastly outnumbered by men, and Barbara quickly encountered one or two members of the opposite sex who appealed to her active imagination as well as to her romantic inclinations. One of these, the late Henry Harvey, was the subject of a fantasy she developed while “studying” at the Bodleian Library. Nicknaming him “Lorenzo” before she discovered his true identity, she soon entered into an intense relationship with Harvey, who is generally considered to have been the love of her life.
Although he proceeded to marry someone else, and Barbara herself had relationships with several other men in the course of her lifetime, she and Harvey remained close friends, at the centre of a loosely-associated network which she went on to use as fodder for her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, published in 1950. In this remarkable novel, written in her mid-thirties, she fast-forwarded to her fifties and envisaged herself and her younger sister Hilary living together in a small village. The Bede sisters, Belinda (representing Barbara) and Harriet (Hilary), are gentlewomen living in somewhat reduced circumstances; Belinda is still in love with Archdeacon Hoccleve, a married clergyman modelled on Harvey as Pym imagined him in late middle age. Other Oxford friends, including the novelist Robert Liddell, are models for her characters.
As prophesied, Barbara and Hilary would, in later years, share a cottage, in the Oxfordshire village of Finstock. Hilary’s marriage failed, and neither sister had any children, but both appeared satisfied with their lot. The pinnacle of Barbara’s success would come towards the very end of her life.
Building a writing career
Only one of Pym’s novels is actually set in Oxford – Crampton Hodnet, a hilarious early work that was published posthumously in 1985, although written in around 1940. The scenes of Barbara’s student days – the Botanic Gardens, Boffin’s Bakery, the Randolph Hotel – provide a backdrop for the inappropriate conduct of a middle-aged lecturer, observed critically by his aunt and his wife and ending in humiliation for himself and a life lesson for his inexperienced female student. Meanwhile, Jessie Morrow, “companion” to a wealthy spinster of North Oxford, has a brief flirtation with the new curate that only serves to confirm her in her path towards unmarried bliss.
Revisiting Oxford in 1937, Barbara Pym met the future politician Julian Amery, who was some years her junior. Their brief relationship involved little more than a bunch of violets and a piece of doggerel that Pym wrote while looking up at his window in Balliol College, but she never forgot their romance, and noted the anniversary in her diary decades later.
It was an enormous shock to Pym to be told, after fifteen years of successful novel-writing, that her long-standing publisher no longer wanted her work. She was behind the times, they implied. Her books about post-war English life held no appeal for the 1960s generation. Her efforts to bring her novels into line with what was now expected proved a dismal failure. Yet she went on writing, completing a number of manuscript novels that sat neglected among her papers until the 1980s.
Philip Larkin, that most unlikely of Pym aficionados, was a regular correspondent and a great support to her during her years in the literary wilderness, but even his influence failed to secure her a new publishing contract. Having retired from her day job at the African Institute in London, Barbara had now settled in Finstock, and her first face-to-face meeting with the great poet took place at the Randolph in 1975. After their deaths, their published letters were adapted for radio and for the stage, to great acclaim.
In 1977, just as Barbara Pym had come to believe that her literary career was over, there came a sudden reversal of fortune. On 21st January of that year, the Times Literary Supplement celebrated its 75th anniversary with a feature in which prominent writers were asked to name the most underrated books and authors of the century. Only one author was nominated twice, and that author was Barbara Pym. Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil (who had been a Fellow at Oxford while Pym was a student), both selected her, with Cecil praising her “unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels”, while Larkin credited her with “a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life”.
Before long, publishers were beating down Pym’s door to acquire the contract for her next novel. Quartet in Autumn was not only published, but nominated for the Booker Prize in 1978. Although it did not win, it put her firmly back on the literary scene. A further two novels were published during her lifetime.
She was, however, already fighting cancer, and died in January 1980. Hazel Holt, her literary executor, ensured the publication of a further three full-length novels, including Crampton Hodnet. It is hard to imagine what she would say if she could look down and see us holding conferences at Oxford in her honour, year after year; but I think it would be something amusing.
Deb Fisher is a graduate of St. Hilda’s College and the incoming chair of the Barbara Pym Society.