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Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 10:17 UK
Barbara Pym: 20th Century Austen
By Jane Curran
BBC Oxford contributor

Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym (1913 1980) set several of her novels in Oxfordshire

Barbara Pym has been called the Jane Austen of the twentieth century.

Her type of gently comic, mildly satirical novels - the English comedy of manners - have a devoted following.

Her writing was appreciated by a small readership in her lifetime. Only eight of her novels were published, the other four released posthumously.

Like Austen's, her fiction is set in a narrow frame, exploring the lives of middle class spinsters and clerics or academics in the 50s and 60s.

The novels are amusing by virtue of the quality of her observation of human nature as much as by the circumstances of the characters or the events that befall them. They are miniatures rather than sweeping epics or sagas, although the same characters do sometimes appear in several books.

A couple of the novels (Crampton Hodnet, Jane and Prudence) are set in Oxford, where she was an undergraduate before World War II, and her last one, A Few Green Leaves, is based on the village life she experienced while living in Finstock, near Charlbury, with her sister Hilary.

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire on June 2nd 1913, the elder of two girls. Her father, Frederic, a solicitor, and his wife Irena, were easy going and kind parents, and gave their daughters a loving upbringing.

Barbara and Hilary had a very happy childhood - their four favourite cousins came to stay at Christmas and Easter, and the house was full of laughter and family jokes. Although they were often invited to tennis parties and had a pony, the girls were not at all sporty but like their parents they were enthusiastic golfers.

The church played an important part in their lives - fetes and outings, jumble sales and parties at the vicarage, as well as the frequent occasions when their parents entertained curates to tea or supper - and this is reflected in the novels.

Frederic and Irena (who was assistant organist at their local church) were keen and talented members of the Oswestry Operatic Society, and one of Barbara's first works was an operetta, The Magic Diamond, written when she was only nine.

When she was 12, Barbara was sent away to boarding school, as it was clear that the High School in Oswestry was not able to stretch this bright and academically inclined little girl. She settled down quickly and made friends easily, and thanks to an excellent English teacher, developed a deep and lasting love of literature; it was this that led her to study English Literature at Oxford.

She came up to St. Hilda's College in 1931, a tall, dark haired girl with slightly prominent teeth, extrovert and amusing. She was keen not only to study but to have a lively social life, and she made the most of being a woman in Oxford at a time when there were only five colleges for women and thus plenty of men around.

She was in constant demand for parties, dinners, punting on the Cherwell, theatre and cinema visits, and was always falling in love, even if usually only briefly.

In fact, for much of her life she was in love with being in love and was entranced by the heady delights of a new affair, yet there were certain men whom she loved deeply, and it was her misfortune that the intensity of her feelings for them was not returned in full and so she never married.

She kept a diary and later, notebooks, where she wrote down details of her daily life together with observations and comments on the people she met and any piquant or absurd situations that she encountered.

These would often find their way into her novels, but she did sometimes take her interest in others too far, and would track down and follow the object of her attention - she used to say that she would have made a good detective.

Many of the entries in her diary record her meetings with young men, the places where they went for tea or a drink, and detailed descriptions of her clothes, which she often made herself, being passionately interested in how she dressed.

In 1934 she got her degree, and then went home to Shropshire. It was not at all unusual for female graduates to do nothing very much after graduating - perhaps some teaching - as it was generally expected that they would get married and become housewives.

She began to write a novel for publication, Some Tame Gazelle, in which she and Hilary, and her friends from Oxford were thinly and somewhat oddly disguised as the middle-aged characters in the book. In 1935 it was rejected by three publishers and this was a bitter disappointment to her, but in 1950 a revised version was published to critical acclaim.

She visited Oxford on numerous occasions, and travelled to Germany and central Europe before going in 1938 to live with Hilary in London.

Hilary was doing a secretarial course with a view to working for the BBC, but Barbara spent her days writing another novel and composing long, sparklingly witty letters to one of her former lovers and his wife, a Finnish girl, whom Barbara determined to like, referring to her as her 'sister'.

Henry Harvey, the man in question, appears in many of her books - often as a charismatic cleric - and came back into her life when, retired and twice-divorced, he moved to a cottage not 30 miles from Finstock.

When war broke out, she went back to Oswestry, but later enlisted in the WRNS (she thought the officers' uniform was very dashing) and was with the service in Naples until the end of the war. After demobilisation, Barbara felt she needed "a nice little job to earn me a bit of money [so] I shall then settle down to writing again and see if I can get a nice novel published".

Through a friend she was taken on as assistant editor at the International African Institute, which was at that time in cramped offices in Lower Regent Street in London. She worked there until 1974, and the academics and staff provided rich material for her novels, which from 1950 until 1961 were published by Jonathan Cape.

Two of them, Excellent Women and A Glassful of Blessings, are generally considered to be her best.

A critic in The Guardian remarked that her books were "delightfully amusing, but no more to be described than a delicious taste or smell" and indeed the restrained and ironic nature of her novels and the circumscribed lives they portrayed fell out of fashion as the 1960s got underway, leading to the rejection in 1963 of her latest book.

This was a great blow to her confidence, and although she started several more novels, they were not published until after her death.

These were difficult years, but a great joy to her was her correspondence with the poet Philip Larkin. This began in 1961 when he was planning to review one of her books, and far from keeping to a serious discussion of literature, they recounted the events of their daily lives and became true pen-friends.

It was not until 1975 that she actually met him, when he came down to Oxford and they had lunch together at the Randolph Hotel. They continued to write to each other until a couple of weeks before her death.

In 1971 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was treated in London. She recovered, but then had a minor stroke which caused a form of dyslexia and meant that she misspelt most of her words when writing. She was admitted to the Radcliffe Infimary and then moved to the Churchill, because at that time she was spending the weekends with Hilary, with whom she had bought a house in Finstock.

Her problems with writing soon vanished, but she was advised to retire, and in July 1974, she moved away from London and into Barn Cottage.

Meanwhile, as the result of a list in the Times Literary Supplement of the most underrated twentieth century writers, Barbara's books enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and in 1977, Quartet in Autumn, which she had written in 1938, was published and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Her earlier novels were reprinted, a new one was published, she was interviewed on Radio Oxford and was a castaway on Desert Island Discs, there was a programme about her life and works on BBC TV, and she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

It was fortunate that this recognition came to her when it did, for she was already terminally ill. Not only was she bothered by heart trouble, but the cancer she had battled some years earlier had returned. Despite treatment, it was clear that she was dying, and just after Christmas 1979 it was arranged that she should go into Sobell House, where she died a short time later on the morning of January 11.




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