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Barbara Pym

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Green Jay

Joined: 13 Jan 2009
Posts: 1605

Location: West Sussex

PostPosted: Tue Jun 21, 2011 1:21 pm    Post subject: Barbara Pym  Reply with quote

I've just looked and we don't seem to have a thread about this author.

I have just read The Sweet Dove Died, one of her later novels. I think I first read this author in the late 1970s ? or early 80s when her reputation received another airing soon after her death. She was a quiet writer who got rather lost. After initial critical success, her books went unpublished for some years until several eminent males took her up – Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin. Larkin has a reputation as a curmudgeon and, regarding his women friends, something of a user, as far as I can make out (I never wanted to read the spate of books about him that came out in recent years. I prefer to stick to the poetry.). But he was certainly a champion of Pym and helped her get her writing back into the spotlight.

Her novels might seem a bit slight and limited in their topics and social milieu, but they are in the great British tradition of comedies of manners, and her viewpoint is often from that of the overlooked female: amanuensis, spinster, widow, companion, and so on. But The Sweet Dove Died was a wonderful depiction of a powerful woman, even if she was powerful largely in that old-fashioned sense of being beautiful, helpless because feminine (she gets tired and needs to be put into a taxi after doing very little indeed!). But she is very comfortably off and has no financial need of a man's help, unlike many of Pym’s female characters. This lends her the edge in tactics to manipulate those she wishes to have hovering around her; she doesn’t really understand the nature of love, and likes to remain firmly in control of everything and everyone. Pym builds up in a short novel a very clear picture of a self-deluding woman, and a certain strand of London life at a certain time which is very vivid. Other novels are about a more pinched life, in the aftermath of the war, where people dash home from work to dine on an egg or a chop and half a tomato, and never seem well-nourished or nurtured at all.

I think her books would make wonderful TV plays; they are all about people and how they get on with each other. She’s very good on power in a small, subtle way. Someone could go mad on the period atmosphere and props.

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Joined: 21 Nov 2008
Posts: 1112

Location: Worcestershire

PostPosted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 10:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was so pleased to see this thread as I admire Barbara Pym's work immensely. I think she is compared, in some of her books I own, to Jane Austen of whom it was said something on the lines of that she is a great writer whom it is very hard to catch in great writing. I think Barbara Pym's books are subtle and funny. Isn't the title of The Sweet Dove Died clever too.
I find I often think about small scenes from her books. In A Few Green Leaves Jessie goes for a walk and spies an unusual purply blue flower. On closer inspection it turns out to be a Cadbury's chocolate wrapper. I have made similar sad mistakes with litter and somehow it tells us a lot about life and the scene has a lovely hint of irony which you get in many of her books.
Do you have a favourite Pym. Green Jay? I think I prefer Excellent Women as it is full of the most wonderful characters but all her books are  very amusing and insightful. I like the way even her characters going through great trauma don't take themselves very seriously and cope through pleasure in small observances

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Green Jay

Joined: 13 Jan 2009
Posts: 1605

Location: West Sussex

PostPosted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 4:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's such a long time since I read the other ones, Ann, that I can't remember them very much, except an overall impression of wit and - as you say - modestly excellent writing. But having enjoyed this recent one so much, I'm going to revsit the others. I haven't yet investigated to see if I own any others - they might have been library books.  Sad

But I know I've got a copy of her biography, partly written by her sister, which was really interesting. I sort of imagine her like Daphne Manners in the Raj Quartet as it was in the wonderful TV series, well-meaning, slightly galumphing, thoroughly nice, and rather sharper and more unconventional than people realised. Might not have been like that at all!

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Site Admin

Joined: 24 Oct 2008
Posts: 3569

Location: Kenilworth, Warwickshire, UK

PostPosted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 10:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I must re-read her.  I loved all the ones I read, but like Green Jay, have an overall impression rather than much detail - at least, I can remember some details, but have no idea which book is which or which books the details I remember occur in!  As with Anita Brookner, her novels all blend a bit.  Wonderful, though, that wit and, as you say Green Jay, slightly galumphing charm.

Must watch Jewel in the Crown again too...what a marvellous series.

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Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 3374

Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Tue May 12, 2015 11:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

CRAMPTON HODNET an early novel by the ever-enjoyable Barbara Pym is a delightful read.  It's familiar Pym territory with its cast of mostly middle-aged women, elderly spinsters and assorted clergy.  This novel is set in North Oxford and the slight plot is about the minor scandal and kerfuffle caused when a married don appears to be having an illicit relationship with a female undergraduate.  Tongues wag and eyebrows are raised while tea is drunk and biscuits are nibbled in over-furnished drawing rooms.  Hearts are set a-flutter when a new good-looking curate, Mr Latimer, takes up residence in the house of elderly Miss Doggett and her repressed spinster companion, Miss Morrow.  Could there possibly be a relationship between Miss Morrow and Mr Latimer?  Barbara Pym's depiction of this particular world is delicious social comedy of the highest order. Her writing is a joy. I smiled a lot and laughed out loud sometimes. If you have never read Barbara Pym, this would be a good one to start with. Her best book though is 'Excellent Women'.  This is a good example of her style.

'I had tea in Fuller's with Killigrew. We talked about Milton'. Killigrew was quoting Paradise Lost.  The beauty of the work is certainly lost through a mouthful of walnut cake. He looked ridiculous.'
Dear Francis thought his wife affectionately. Was it possible to recite Milton over the tea table and not look ridiculous? 'Won't you recite some now?' she asked solemnly.
'Whatever for?'
'Don't you remember...?' she began, but she stopped, because she herself was being ridiculous now.  For there was surely something essentially ridiculous in remembering how Francis had once recited the whole of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' to her over tea in Boffin's.

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