Barbara Pym became beloved as one of the wittiest novelists of the late twentieth century, revealing the inner workings of domestic life so brilliantly that her friend Philip Larkin announced her the era’s own Jane Austen. But who was Barbara Pym and why was the life of this English writer – one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart – so defined by rejection, both in her writing and in love?
In this deeply affectionate biography, Paula Byrne claims her as a 'cult author' but that doesn’t seem quite right. Pym is no one’s idea of a well-kept secret. Although she is frequently described, not least by Byrne, as a modern Jane Austen, in fact her work is far closer to Elizabeth Gaskell in her Cranford days ... In this excellent – a word that always carried extra heft in Pym’s universe – biography Byrne explores how her art emerged from three distinct yet porous registers of experience ... Although Pym’s archive has already been well picked over by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate its revelations into a cradle-to-grave biography. She gives a seamless timeline of Pym’s life ... Byrne doesn’t dodge the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathiser (she even had a swastika pin that she wore around Oxford) went on longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but she is clear too how completely it was bound up with Pym’s feelings for prewar Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of communism from Russia ... Oddly, though, Byrne does not delve very deeply into the less toxic business of why Pym had such a masochistic habit of going after men who were either gay or already committed to prettier or socially smarter women.
Byrne is an engaging writer...Despite its bulk, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym skips easily along in bite-size chapters; it aims to rollick, and rollick it does ... In its willingness to present its subject’s less appealing side, Byrne’s improves on the previous biographies, a cottage industry of Pymiana maintained by her friends and family. And Byrne is good at filling in some of the contemporary context that informed her life and work. But as with the earlier books, Byrne’s main source is the Pym trove at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It is a huge resource — decades of journals, notebooks, drafts and letters — but also a hindrance: Where the author is silent, Byrne is reduced to silence, too. Seemingly important events, like the death of Pym’s mother, are dispatched in a sentence. Much is read into lacunae in the record: When Pym expurgates her diaries at emotional moments, Byrne must hazard guesses at the precise reasons ... the longest and most significant relationship of Pym’s life, with her younger sister Hilary, gets fairly scant attention — even though the two lived together for decades. Pym’s long career at the International African Institute, which gave her abundant material for her novels, is hardly discussed; and not much consideration is given to her faith...The books, too, get curiously short shrift, with more plot summary than critical assessment ... For devotees of Pym’s novels, ardent if not legion, Byrne’s book will be a welcome companion. For more casual fans, its appeal may be more limited. Pym led an interesting life, but Byrne’s expansive approach means it is nearly 400 pages before she publishes her first novel. And while she never wrote an autobiography, Pym infused herself — as Byrne ably shows — into her own canon, which remains the best way to meet her. Even Barbara was apt to note the slippages between life and art.
Like many of Pym’s novels, Paula Byrne’s superb new biography of the author illustrates the limitations, challenges and opportunities faced by educated single women in the 20th century ... The Pym who comes to life in this engaging and ultimately moving book is a woman who was sometimes brave and sometimes morally blind, a romantic who had a sense of the absurdity of romance but for whom dreams could overcome common sense, a woman who faced the challenges of growing older as a single woman with courage, a woman with the gift of keeping lifelong friends. 'Incidentally, people may be very untame inwardly – one can seldom know,' Pym wrote in her diary in 1933. As this exemplary biography shows, that was definitely true of Miss Barbara Pym.