Pride and Prejudice and Pym

ImageIn the fall of 2001 I was sitting in an undergraduate creative writing class. My favorite writing instructor, Dr. Lorraine Lopez, was trying to teach we dunderheads the subtle art of dialogue. Good dialogue was natural to the time, characters, and setting. Excellent dialogue bumped it up a notch and delivered believable communication but with the added addition of filling in the reading on important things like hypocrisy or underlying motives, or other such nuances. The shrewd writer’s ever-observing eye would infuse the text with layered meaning, but  if done well it should slip in ninja like – unnoticed. The reader should read the passage, be educated/entertained, and be further hooked on the plot and characters.

Then Dr. Lopez mentioned that Barbara Pym was her favorite author and the absolute best at dialogue and could be compared to Jane Austen in that regard. Then I stopped listening. My professor was brilliant and typically I would trust anything she said, but how could someone be as good as Jane Austen. To be honest, I was sick of everything under the sun being compared to Jane Austen. Keep in mind the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice was still hugely popular and inspired a barage of vapid romances “inspired” by Austen’s work. I hated how Austen had become a staple of pop culture; her shrewdly observant, often edgily feminist social critiques were reduced down to romantic stories for smart girls. Also every blasted chick lit book for the past ten years compares the author/story to Austen. I was sick of it.

When trusted professors recommended Pym I disregarded it. After a quick internet search on Barbara Pym I decided to not read her; after all, it seemed as if she were just a quick-witted, quintessentially British lady writing cozy pot-boilers. I wanted no part of it.

My love and adoration of Austen poisoned me against Pym initially. I was prideful of my own knowledge of literature (oh to be a confident undergrad again) and prejudiced against anything seeming to ride on the coat tales of Austen.

Thank the heavens for blogging and the maturity that comes with graduating and realizing I didn’t know everything about literature. As I began blogging about books I met some mighty smart, well-read folks and most of these intelligent bookish folks celebrated Pym as truly a treasure to read.

I jumped in and read A Few Green Leaves. Loved it. Then I read The Sweet Dove Died. Loved it even more. Then I read Excellent Women and I was absolutely smitten with Pym. She absolutely deserves a comparison to Austen in her superbly written dialogue and social commentary. I think Pym is also like Austen in that she can deliver wittiness and sarcasm without being bitchy. I could seriously hang with these two ladies all day.

There you have it. My introduction to Pym. Let me know in the comments how you met Pym. If you have never read a Pym book then by golly you’re in the right place. June 1st – 8th Thomas and I are celebrating Pym’s centenary. Feel free to participate! All you need to do is leave a comment with a link back to your post about Pym (or if you don’t have a blog you can discuss in the comments of this post). Brew some tea, curl up with a fantastic novel, and join us. In addition to reading some fabulous literature, we’ll also be offering up giveaways and prizes. Tune in tomorrow for details on a Barbara Pym cover contest and a celebratory tea!



  1. I wish I had had a creative writing class. I like any post that tells a personal story, and I love this one. And I certainly know what it is like to avoid something wonderful because I think I am too cool for school.

  2. Fabulous post : ) yes I do agree about Pym’s ability to write dialogue, I think like Jane Austen and my great favourite Elizabeth Taylor she must have had avery sharp ear for how people interact with one another.

  3. Lovely post, and yes, these three ladies have a lot in common (as do I with the commenter above me!). I first met Miss Pym as an early teenager. Mary, an older lady and neighbour, who was like a third grandmother to me, was a socialist, gardening, pressure-cooker-cooking, jam-making, cat-owning, ice-cream-making, unconventional feminist in a village that was extremely conservative and Conservative. Through my formative adult reading years she introduced me to Pym, Virago books as a whole, Taylor, Iris Murdoch, Erica Jong …

  4. I can’t remember when I met Miss Pym, but all of my copies of her books are old and a little dusty, and I can’t wait to read them again! Thanks to you and Thomas for hosting this event!!

  5. Just shared this post on FB…and suggested beginning with Jane and Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle (that first line always gets me) or Excellent Women. Have been reading Pym for 30 years and never tire of her. Thank you Amanda

  6. Thank you both for posting Pymish things this week! In honor of the centenary, I’m re-reading all the books in order of writing (although I’ve already gotten confused with order of writing and order of publication!). I first read the books in the early 80’s when they came out in the US. I’ve been re-reading my faves (Excellent Women, Jane & Prudence, An Unsuitable Attachment, and No Fond Return of Love) at least once a year since. Delightful to return to the others I’ve read less often… B. Pym always seems fresh and nuanced to me, even after 30 years!

  7. I’d always been aware of Pym but for some reason never actually read her, until, as you say, other bookish people convinced me she was worth reading. Started with No Fond Return of Love. I agree, her penetrating eye into interpersonal quirks is wonderful.

  8. Found her (actually a copy of Jane and Prudence) in a small town Texas library many years ago (early 80s) and fell in love. Have now read the canon (several times) and I so enjoy how she weaves characters from one book into another. Like a family. I see her influence in many current writers (most notably in Alexander McCall Smith) and am so pleased to see that her writing is experiencing a resurgence.

  9. I’m ashamed to admit how recently I ‘discovered’ Barbara Pym – and I’ve always prided myself on being well-read too. Still I’m making up for lost time now.

    1. Like Victoria I’m a tad embarassed to confess how long I’ve live my life without Pym. A good friend suggested I would like her books a few years ago, but I’ve done nothing about it until this weekend 🙂
      I’ve just started Excellent Women and as predicted I’m in love!
      Love your posts (and Thomas’) about all things Pym – a great idea.

  10. I first met Barbara Pym in 2006 through a Yahoo book group.. had never heard of her when Quartet in Autumn was selected for discussion. I’ve gone on to read a few more of her books, but keep meaning to go back and reread that one. I remember it as being very different from the others. Thanks for co-hosting Pym Week!

  11. I wish I could remember reading my first Pym! It might well have been The Sweet Dove Died, when it was first published. I’m having a wonderful week thinking about Pym to the exclusion of nearly everything else – bliss!

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