Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym’

Barbara Pym became famous in 1977 when Philip Larkin in The Times Literary Supplement called her “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Two of Pym’s novels were published simultaneously in the U.S. in 1978, Quartet in Autumn and an older title, Excellent Women. Pym was of course compared to Jane Austen, as women writers always are, though her humorous novels are nothing like Austen’s and bear the stamp of a different sensibility.  Her protagonists are intellectual spinsters who live in the suburbs, work as freelance indexers or anthropologists, attend jumble sales, and have romantic entanglements with vicars.

These entertaining novels were passed around in graduate school.  Our  social life unfolded at a coffeehouse–think Cheers on caffeine–where we retired exhausted after classes and talked to hip people who also lounged there. Barbara Pym got swapped for Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Rough Strife–there were a lot of book buyers among us–but I eventually bought most of Pym’s books in paperback.   

Barbara Pym


I am rereading No Fond Return of Love, which I have to say is not her best book.  This is not to say that it isn’t charming.  Dulcie Mainwaring, a freelance indexer, is philosophical about her profession and her single life.  Her fiance recently broke up with her, her mother has died, and she goes to a conference for editors and indexers as a change.  

When the notice of the conference came, it seemed to be just the kind of thing that was recommended for women in her position–an opportunity to meet new people and to amuse herself by observing the lives of others, even if only for a weekend and under somewhat unusual circumstances.”

At the conference she meets Viola Dace, a difficult, sour, attractive woman who is in love with Professor Aylwin Forbes.  When Alwyn, recently separated from his wife and determined to avoid the amorous Viola, collapses during his speech on Some Problems of Editing, Dulcie comes to the rescue with smelling salts.  Dulcie becomes intrigued by the gorgeous, shaggy Aylwin.  She researches him in the library, walks through his neighborhood, and goes so far as to attend a jumble sale at his mother-in-law’s house.  Reducing a person to research is strangely satisfying for Dulcie, who loves to compile facts about people but is sometimes disappointed by relationships.

The sensible Dulcie’s harmless crush is very funny, and when Viola alienates her landlady and moves in with Dulcie, the situation becomes even more comical.  Pym shows us how eccentric, quiet women can be as interesting as the heroines of action novels.  Dulcie’s wry musings on human nature are delightful.

Are Pym’s books classics?  Well, I don’t know.  I enjoy them very much, but they don’t awe me as they did in my youth.  I would, however, like to attend the Barbara Pym conference in Boston in March.  I would love to meet the Dulcie Mainwarings and Viola Daces who, I imagine, attend these conferences.

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