Reading Barbara Pym


(Credit: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

I love this photo of Pym holding a tortoise cat who looks like she doesn’t entirely like being held. (If you Google images of Pym, you’ll find another fine one of her sitting with this cat in her lap.)

First, head over to My Porch to see what others are writing about Pym this week.

I  loved the idea of a Barbara Pym Reading Week to celebrate Pym’s centenary, but I wasn’t sure I was going to participate. I have a lot of reading challenges going on right now, and I am mostly reading children’s and YA lit these days. I also discovered that my library has no Pym titles and the other library where I have a card (60 miles away) only has large-print editions of her novels. All I could find on my shelf was Crampton Hodnet, and I didn’t think it boded well that the novel, one of her first, was published posthumously. I imagined that some eager editor or family member had found a justly-abandoned manuscript in a drawer after Pym’s death and rushed it to print.

But I picked it up on a whim and started reading, and that was it: I was hooked. Crampton Hodnet reminded me just how much I enjoy Pym’s fiction–and also just how long it’s been since I read any of it.

Others are sharing their introduction to Pym stories, so I will share mine too. I met Pym when I was living, rather miserably, in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. I had library cards to four libraries (Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the public libraries in Mechelen, Leuven, and Antwerp). I spent my weekends visiting museums or taking the train to the library. The Leuven library had a small but especially fine collection of British fiction, including many Viragos, and I chose books more or less at random. I was an obsessed Austenite who fervently wished that some previously-undiscovered Austen manuscript would come to light. Couldn’t there be just one more? And then I happened to check out Less Than Angels. I couldn’t help but feel that I’d gotten my wish in some small way.

Crampton Hodnet does not take place in a village called Crampton Hodnet, as I assumed it must. It’s set in Oxford, and the title comes from a lie the curate tells to cover his absence from evening church. There are many fine and Austenesque moments. Here are two I copied into my reading notebook:

Regarding our same curate, “As he got near the end of his journey he began to feel that he didn’t at all want to go to France. His friend, the Reverend Theodore James, was rather too serious a companion for a holiday. He couldn’t think now why he had suggested that he should join him. It wasn’t as if they had ever liked each other. Still, it was too late to do anything about it now, and at least they would be able to have a good talk about old times, rejoicing over those of their contemporaries who had not fulfilled their early promise and belitting those who had.”


And about one of my favorite characters, Miss Morrow, the spinster companion to the crabby Miss Doggett: “There was something so restful in being somebody whose presence made no difference one way or the other.”


Although Crampton Hodnet is an accomplished and enjoyable novel, I think Pym is still learning her craft to some degree and, perhaps even more, figuring out her subject and theme. It’s there in this early novel, but not as sharply observed or realized as it will become in later novels.

Still, the moment I finished it, I was off to scour my shelves for more Pym (and I found No Fond Return of Love, which I’m rereading right now)–as well as to break down and buy my own copies of Quartet in Autumn, Less Than Angels, and A Glass of Blessingsall, alas, in the dreadful Perennial Library editions with the tiny, tiny print. Maybe I should try out those large-print editions after all? I read Crampton Hodnet in the Dutton edition (with a fine cover designed by Jacqueline Schuman AND appropriately-sized print). Thomas has an interesting post on the book designer (who also designed my favorite Colette covers!)

It seems that it’s impossible to write an appreciation of Pym without bringing up Austen, and I have mixed feelings about that. I would like for Pym to stand on her own, without those comparisons, but I can’t help making them myself. Pym and Austen are both interested in how the individual lives within the community, but more than a shared subject matter and similar setting, what makes me compare the two of them is a certain tone–sharp, wry, ironic, yet also always generous. There is a love of human folly and foible in Pym and Austen, and I do mean love as opposed to enjoyment or appreciation. It’s odd that these novels are considered comfort reads given how uncomfortable they can be in their observation of social awkwardness, but there is always a warmth and understanding, almost akin to delight or wonder, on the part of the narrator.

I am planning to read No Fond Return of Love this week and then A Glass of Blessings or Less Than Angels. I have a busy week, so my Barbara Pym Reading Week will probably become more like a Barbara Pym Reading Month, which is no bad thing.

I read around online over the weekend to find out more about Pym, and the best article I’ve read is Carrie Frye’s Marvelous Spinster: Barbara Pym at 100. (Extra bonus for quoting my favorite obscure novel, Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths.)


One thought on “Reading Barbara Pym

  1. So many ‘new’ books for me to look forward to.
    From all the reviews I can see there are similarities between all her books – similar themes, scenes, characters, professions, food, dialogue and set-ups.
    I’m looking forward to getting to know them more intimately:-)

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