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Barbara Pym - please explain the attraction!

(21 Posts)
kitnkaboodle Thu 05-Jun-14 22:52:13

I've just returned from a half term holiday where I staggered my way through TWO Barbara Pyms. Thought that I should acquaint myself with her as she seems to be held in such high esteem and Virago have seen fit to deck out her books in new chick-lit-style covers hmm. Also thought that it would be entertaining, quirky, witty, light holiday reading.

Instead .... what tedious, depressing drivel. I 'get' that she is supposed to document the mundane and the trivial, but not a sodding thing happened in either book apart from spinsters yearning after unavailable men (usually clergy) and endless dreary meals and teas and rhapsodising about the church.

Jane Austen? Not

penguinpaperback Thu 05-Jun-14 23:14:47

My favourite BP is Quartet in Autumn. If it wasn't one of your holiday reads and you want to give Barbara Pym one more try I would recommend this one. Not a light holiday read though. I haven't seen the new covers but chick lit style would be very misleading for new readers.

kitnkaboodle Thu 05-Jun-14 23:22:44

I wasn't really expecting chick-lit style, and was quite shock by the Virago covers (what are they thinking of these days?!). They (and the blurbs) definitely play on the romantic associations though - so God knows what someone expecting a Mills and Boon experience would think of them

I was expecting more ... I'm not sure ... humour, eccentricity ... I suppose something along the lines of Cold Comfort Farm, which was no doubt totally barking up the wrong tree. I don't know if we are meant to relate to BP's 'heroines' or not, or whether they are supposed to be unlikeable narrators (which is a difficult notion to struggle with). I just found them and their shrunken, clergy-obsessed lives totally unsympathetic, and not even interesting from a historical point of view blush

LuluJakey1 Thu 05-Jun-14 23:52:16

I love Barbara Pym. She is so subtle and ironic and of a time and a place.
Sad and funny.
I can read and re-read her books.

DuchessofMalfi Fri 06-Jun-14 06:23:54

I read some Barbara Pym years ago and liked them. Want to re-read now smile.

penguinpaperback Fri 06-Jun-14 07:39:29

After mentioning my favourite Barbara Pym here I just had to get it out and I'm now re-reading it. smile

Quangle Fri 06-Jun-14 07:47:25

I must say I agree OP. Tedious bedsitters and churchgoing. Is supposed to be wry but I didn't find it so.

kitnkaboodle Fri 06-Jun-14 10:41:50

Thanks Quangle. I feel like a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

I could cope with 'wry' if anything actually happened in the books, or if the characters did anything or said anything I could relate to. I do appreciate some of her turns of phrase, or character observations - could have done with more or those.

They don't even work as period pieces for me in the same way as other lost Virago classics do (Elizabeth Taylor, etc). The period where spinsters stalked lone or unhappily married men obsessively, 'accidentally' arranging to bump in to them (usually in some tea room or ecclesiastical location) seems to me better left in the past with the door closed! Her heroines seem to have nothing to redeem themselves - no spark, no self-esteem, no courage. Depressing.

Quangle Fri 06-Jun-14 16:52:38

I know exactly what you mean. I love almost everything by Virago but this seemed joyless to me. Philip Larkin was a fan and I can't help thinking he liked women to have a very small palette to work from.

Sad lives in a way that Austen's women did not have sad lives. But perhaps I wasn't reading the right ones.

kitnkaboodle Fri 06-Jun-14 19:24:01

There's just no joy there.

Been thinking about this a lot today! Austen and Trollope deal with lives, loves and scandals of the clergy, and with on-the-shelf women putting themselves eagerly in the way of available men - but they do it with life and joy, and with likeable protagonists. So, it isn't the subject matter, is it? It's the lack of warmth and affection towards it.

Barbara Pym's 'heroines' put me very much in mind of my late aunt and her life, so they do seem quite poignant to me. But she herself was addicted to Georgette Heyer, which must at least have been some fun to read!! wink

carlajean Fri 06-Jun-14 22:21:32

I love BP but think she's a 'marmite' author. Also, a couple of them (an academic question and crampton hodnet) are weak. I totally understand why people don't like her, but I enjoy her views on life and human nature and love the way so many of the characters apear in other book.

SconeRhymesWithGone Sat 07-Jun-14 01:27:46

There is a sadness that runs through much of her work. I love Pym and go through periods of re-reading. My favorites are Quartet in Autumn and A Glass of Blessings. For me, her work is stylistically appealing and the characters are superbly drawn.

thecatfromjapan Sat 07-Jun-14 02:04:59

I tried Barbara Pym when I was younger, and I really just did not "get" her. I then re-read her when I was a bit older, and going through a different stage in my life - and everything fell into place. That is really how I would describe it: I suddenly "saw" the humour, the subtle observations, the perceptiveness.

You have to believe that her (main) characters have a degree of self-knowledge (along with blindness), and that they are not sad, hopeless losers. I think with that in mind, it all begins to make a lot more sense.

She is very subtle. She doesn't provide the reader with huge pointers as to how to read her books.

I am a bit annoyed because I can't remember the name of the book I read that helped me make sense of her. It's the one where the young student has just moved out of his writer-girlfriend's flat, in a slightly selfish manner. She's a writer-journalist, and older, and she typed (and probably edited heavily) his thesis.

Once you realise that Barbara Pym was quite like that character, her other writing makes a lot more sense (well, it did for me, anyway).

"A Glass of Blessings" is far and away my favourite, too, scone. It is quite sad. There is a terrible, appalling existential pain at the heart of the book, which it circles, and never, ever names. All the lightness, the trivia, is there precisely to demonstrate how unspeakable this pain and sadness is - and how we humans can't even talk about this awful tragedy (death, aloneness, the vacuity of human existence).

It is very funny. It's also stylistically quite bold, in that it risks a heroine who might seem an absolutely vacuous idiot, with no self-insight and a great deal of blindness concerning others - and it offers very little to gainsay that opinion. But, if you accept that there are reasons for the things-which-are-not-said, you begin to see her silences on the "deep" things - love, loneliness, the purpose of existence, the task of living, relationships with other, fidelity, commitment - as a kind of stoicism: and one made particularly poignant precisely because it is never acknowledged (by others) as such, and is easily mis-read, or overlooked.

thecatfromjapan Sat 07-Jun-14 02:19:28

Maybe she appeals because I've learned that there are different types of tragedy? When I was younger, I understood tragedy to be the truly dreadful things: losing people you love to death in terrible, unexpected ways; horrific accidents. I wonder if I subconsciously associated tragedy with some kind of public acknowledgement of these things? Stories in papers; heroic figures; groups of friends all talking. It is something that seems to disorder the plan we expected of life, and to shake the stars in some way.

And perhaps now I think that there is a kind of tragedy that is on-going and quotidien? It is the obvious, banal tragedy of getting older, realising that a heroic life is for the few, that most of us will live small lives, of a great deal of unacknowledged disappointment, that true love is rare, that we will spend much of our time speaking with people who don't understand us at all, that we are all destined to die, and that most of us will die after living a life that was not the stuff of our dreams. Again: we will all die. Somehow, we have to live without thinking of this as a tragedy. And of course, it isn;t, if you accept that tragedy is the extreme, and the extraordinary. But it is also strange to think we have to live without fully acknowledging all the full sadness of some of the burdens we carry.

Simultaneoulsy, it is wonderful to be alive, to be able to do ridiculous, silly, pointless things: like pursuing teenage-style infatuations into our thirties, and making pastry that is crap, and gardening, and indulging in relationships with friends. All of it is pointless. But it is also wonderful, and meaning-giving, and life-affirming.

I think Barbara Pym often writes from a place overlooking these paradoxes.

I don't like to go on too much about her writing, because I don't really want to "undo" it. I love the way it works, and really don't want to take it apart (for myself).

On the other hand, lovely though Venice is, you might be able to get more out of your trip if you have a tourist guide.

SconeRhymesWithGone Sat 07-Jun-14 02:44:25

Beautifully put, thecat. Is the book you are referring to that helped you make sense of her Less Than Angels?

thecatfromjapan Sat 07-Jun-14 03:18:09

Yes! That is the one! You're brilliant. Thank you scone. I salute your Pym-knowledge with great respect.

This thread has made me think all sorts of things about why I like her so much.

I've been thinking about how much I like reading stories about things that are left out of other books. About what happens to the people who would never make it as the central figures in an Austen novel, or what happens twenty years later, if the marriage was called off, or just ... ten, twenty years later.

You have to be a very good writer to carry that sort of thing off. And a brave publisher to take a risk on something so seemingly "plotless".

She reminds me of the line in the Buzzcocks song: "Nothing ever happens to people like us, 'cept we catch the bus." Which made me start thinking about all the things Barbara Pym has (and doesn't have) in common with punk.

I really worry that the publishing industry is so risk-averse (and her publishing history is a testament to how risk averse it always has been - for reasons that are fair enough - people in publishing have to eat) that we just won't get writers like Barbara Pym.

It's lovely to meet other Pym fans. smile <waves enthusiastically>

carlajean Sat 07-Jun-14 08:38:27

Has anyone else noticed how often she appears in her books? I usually binge-read her work. I think the saddest is The Sweet Dove Died , I think that's the one with the heroine who has a sort of relationship with an antique dealer and his younger nephew.
One of my favourite bits of her humour is when the heroine (who loves Greece) is thoroughly snubbed by another woman and thinks about ,on a visit to Greece, watching a fisherman bash out an octupuses brains on a rock. Though she put it better than that.

LuluJakey1 Sat 07-Jun-14 09:02:48

'Excellent Women' is another favourite. I have read it so many times it has fallen apart.

bibliomania Mon 09-Jun-14 12:56:12

I love her, although I still don't quite get A Glass of Blessings and The Sweet Dove Died. I love Some Tame Gazelle, A Quartet in Autumn, Excellent Women (great for a disenchanted take on a prospective marriage - chicklit this is not!) and Less Than Angels. I also think the elopement scene in Crampton Hodnet is very funny.

To me they offer real consolation for life's occasional bleakness ("There was something to be said for a nice cup of tea and a cosy chat about crematoria"). She shines a light on things that are utterly mundane, and in her wry yet kindly rendering, they take on a kind of glow. I think there is a lot of courage and humour in there. Her characters accept a cup of cocoa in lieu of a night of burning passion. If that is what life is giving you, you might as well learn to value it.

I think thecatfromjapan's really nails it in her analysis above. BP's characters have great courage in their own way. They may be tempted to despair, but they find consolation.

LuluJakey1 Mon 09-Jun-14 17:45:55

'A Glass of Blessings' is another favourite. I love Wilmet and Rodney and Wilf Bason and Keith. Also 'An Unsuitable Attachment' with Faustina, the parish trip to Rome and Sophia and Mark Ainger.

I am going to re- read them all! What a treat! Can't wait grin

Viviennemary Sun 15-Jun-14 20:44:41

A 'Glass of Blessings' is my favourite too if I had to choose. I also like the 'Sweet Dove Died'. But this author certainly isn't to everyone's taste. Anita Brookner reminds me a little bit of Barbara Pym.

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