George Justice, Editor

Barbara Pym’s Selective Affinities

“All This Reading”: The Literary World of Barbara Pym

Edited by Frauke Elisabeth Lenckos and
Ellen J. Miller.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
247 pages. Hardcover. $46.50.

Reviewed by Frederick M. Keener.

This spirited, substantial collection of essays may well interest members of the Jane Austen Society of North America, not only because Barbara Pym’s novels have so frequently been described as resembling Austen’s, but also because the book emanates to a considerable extent, as the editors acknowledge, from members of a sister “Society of North America,” that of Barbara Pym. The collection of more than 20 pieces, suiting the variety of views and viewpoints inevitably embraced by such a society, combines searching literary-critical studies with, in the second of its two main parts, a quite various collection of more personal essays, mostly biographical—including reminiscences by Hazel Holt, Pym’s literary executor, biographer, and longtime friend, and by Pym’s
editor Paul De Angelis—as well as Pym’s last piece of writing for the public, completed just before her death: the account of “A Year in West Oxfordshire,” introduced by Ronald Blythe.

A short review can but begin to suggest the nature of the book’s multifarious contents. The Austen connection is prominent, more than the index indicates, with emphasis on Austen-like serious comedy involving plots of disillusionment and self-discovery, and links as patent as the point that the heroine of Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves, is named for Austen’s Emma.

But a number of the contributors are at pains to show that Pym’s most distinctive novelistic accomplishment, different from those of Austen, is to be found in that novel and the two published just before it, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. As one of the editors, Frauke Elisabeth Lenckos, puts it in a strong (if sometimes awkwardly phrased) essay in the first part of the book, “Instead of merely testing the moral capacity of her protagonists to resist the seductions of romantic make-believe, as she had done in her earlier works, Pym . . . also examines the ethics of contemporary literature. When she finds in particular its treatment of middle-aged and senior women readers wanting, she bears powerful testimony to the feelings of disillusionment plaguing a neglected stratum of society.” It is as if Emma had been rewritten from the point of view of a beleaguered Miss Bates. And as Anne Pilgrim brings out, Pym’s first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, though certainly reminiscent of Sense and Sensibility, deals with a pair of contrasted sisters not young but middle-aged. Pym’s characteristic, considerably original novelistic interest in women no longer young was evident even when she was quite young herself.

The collection features contributions by several literary-critical luminaries with unusual points to make. The very perceptive Barbara Everett, though much admiring Pym and her fiction, regards the earlier novels and most especially the prominent Excellent Women as subtly tailored to court popularity above all, too complacent about the societies they depict. Everett begins by questioning the readily available assumption that Pym’s novels express herself as she really was in person, as endearing company. According to Everett, Pym so successfully gives this impression that, Everett comments, “a greatly gifted as well as sympathetic critic such as John Bayley can suggest that she is a writer impossible to criticize; we can only like or love her.”

Everett’s too-lightly annotated piece has no citation for that reference, but the book’s second part happens to include an essay by Bayley entitled “Barbara Pym as Comforter,” which ends by testifying that Pym’s novels regularly consoled him, “as nothing else could,” while he sought to endure the dying of his wife, Iris Murdoch. Evidently he derived this relief from only some of Pym’s novels, not late ones in which he feels she speaks out of character, inauthentically, about people and situations different from those she knew well.

Members of JASNA will undoubtedly find parallels within its membership and the spectrum of Austen commentary for opinions so divergent yet understandable as these.

Pym, though, does differ much from Austen in having left a quite large trove of manuscripts ranging from early versions of the novels, to unpublished fiction, to notebooks she mined for her writing, to various autobiographical materials, and one of the best aspects of this book is the extent to which the essayists have employed the manuscript material to illuminate the often-humorous implicit meaning of her learned allusions, usually to older English literature, especially poems. However, at least one of this book’s essays, by Barbara J. Dunlap, is especially impressive in its learned, imaginative, strongly supported case for the importance to Pym’s novels of those written by not Austen but the Victorian, prolific Charlotte M. Yonge, herself “rather unusual in drawing detailed portraits of older unmarried women.”

Frederick M. Keener is Professor Emeritus of English at Hofstra University. He wrote about Jane Austen in two chapters of his The Chain of Becoming (Columbia University Press, 1983) and about “Barbara Pym Herself and Jane Austen” in Twentieth Century Literature 31 (1985), 89-110.

JASNA News v.20, no. 1, Spring 2004, p. 20

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