Two weeks ago I finished Barbara Pym’s collected and unpublished works Civil to Strangers and Other Writings. Last week I finished Pym’s autobiography — A Very Private Eye — as told through letters and diaries. Now at last to review them.
Civil to Strangers and Other Writings
Civil to Strangers is Barbara Pym’s unpublished, second novel. A poignant and insightful novel about marriage, Civil to Strangers concerns married couple Cassandra and Adam. Cassandra is perfect; she has impeccable manners, a caring soul, and is blessed with insight into human nature. Adam is a writer obsessed with Wordsworth and writing epic poetry; he is stupid, obnoxious, but at the core a good person. Of course there is a village filled with misplaced judgements and conjecture, meddling neighbors, a passionate foreigner and an possible affair. I’m trying not to give away the plot too much, but let’s just say that this story aptly presents that people deserve who they get — most of the time. I enjoyed the novel and I thought it certainly deserved publication.
Gervase and Flora is Pym’s unfinished Finnish novel and Home Front Novel is her unfinished WWII novel about a village taking in evacuees. These fragments are interesting, but best read with some biographical context. I picked up Pym’s autobiography while I was reading the fragments and it made the experience all the richer. Pym was in love with an undeserving fellow — Henry Harvey — who moved to Finland and married a Finnish woman. Henry is represented by Gervase and Pym is Flora. What is most interesting is that by reading this highly biographical novel, one can tell that Pym was aware Henry was an ass and she didn’t give a hoot. She still loved him.
Home Front Novel draws on Pym’s experiences in 1939 in her village of Oswestry. The novel has romance, or what one can tell will be a romance, but it is also filled with ration books, housing evacuees, first aid classes, black out curtains, etc…. Pym’s diaries were especially fascinating during the writing of this novel fragment; her entries would detail the canning and sheet sewing and meetings and then discuss the progress with her novel. I really wished this had been finished as it is very much an eyewitness view of WWII preparation in an English village. Alas, Pym didn’t finish the novel.
So Very Secret is Pym’s attempt at a spy novel and is so godawful. Really, really horrible. Pym just didn’t know what to do with a tight plot. I was more than slightly embarrassed for Pym when reading it. Basically, and “excellent woman” ends up being a spy and in 50 pages she drink tons of tea, is drugged, is rescued and just so happens to run into trustworthy people at every corner who believe her strange tell and help her evade danger. Silly stuff.
There are four short stories in this collection. I really enjoyed all of them. In fact, Pym’s stories remind me of Elizabeth Bowen’s stories. There is usually a highly insightful female protagonist, there is a sense of quiet action, and then the reader is left hanging a bit at the end wondering about the characters’ lives, actions, and outcomes. Usually there isn’t a clearly defined outcome and I enjoy that ambiguity.
Overall: A would give this collection 3 stars. It is mostly classic Pym and is interesting to read, but more as a companion to Pym’s biography and a journey of her writing style.
A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters
I am trying so hard to contain my desire to engage in full on fan-girl gushing over this collection. Hazel Holt — Pym’s friend and literary adviser — and Hilary Pym — Barbara’s younger sister — have collected a selection of Pym’s diaries and letters to construct a sort of autobiography. Barbara Pym’s voice is effervescent and possibly better than her novels.
Rather than sum up her biography — A Very Private Eye covers Pym’s days as an Oxford student up until a few weeks before her death — I would like to point out two things and give you a list of side-effects of reading this book.
First, the two things:
First of all, Barbara was not a virginal, dowdy cat lady. More like a be-sweatered Carrie Bradshaw. Think post-coital smoking and reading of Milton. Of having a younger man obsessed with you and bring you flowers. Think being in love with your BFF’s husband and having an affair. You go, Barbara.
Secondly, I really like Barbara Pym. As in “why-couldn’t-we-be-neighbors-and-knit-together.” You all are aware that I love Sylvia Plath’s writing and her biography is moving to me as a young woman who has dealt with mental illness, motherhood, and scholarly ambitions. However, I am pretty sure that if I “met” Sylvia Plath she would ignore me, I would be intimidated, and I may even accuse her of Bitchy Resting Face. I like Barbara Pym in that I could see her being my best friend. We’d drink tea and knit and discuss books and cats and the other neighbors. She is so likable — her sharp eye, her emotional vulnerability, her sweetly positive spirit in the face of the cancer that would eventually end her life. The last entry contains the text of a Christmas card to poet and friend Philip Larkin:
December 1979: WITH BEST WISHES FOR CHRISTMAS AND THE NEW YEAR. (Still struggling on — perhaps a little better!) Another visit to hospital (brief) on 2nd Jan.
She died on 11 January 1980
I boo-hooed like the first time I read Beth’s death scene in Little Women.
Okay, now some side-effects of reading Pym:
- An intense desire to read books by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Lively, and pretty much every “between the Wars” female novelist in the Virago and Persephone catalog.
- Knitting. Outdoors in a garden. Practical jumpers (sweaters), socks, and hats.
- Tea. Lots of tea. Have some at the ready.
- Over giddy excitement when you realize Pym journals as you do: a small entry of the days events in a sort of planner and then a journal for random musings and jottings.
- Visit a University Library (Pym had was writing to poet Philip Larkin who was a university librarian)
- Speaking of poetry, go ahead and have a volume of Matthew Arnold by your side. You’ll want to read loads of Matthew Arnold.
- A swelling of introvert pride when you realize that Pym was an introvert.
- Letter-writing. Good letter writing. This involves writing a letter like you are having a face to face conversation with someone. Pym may be the best letter-writer ever.
- Jam-making. Girlfriend made a lot of jam and I may or may not have two quarts of blackberries waiting to be turned to jam.
A Very Private Eye is simply the best Pym I have ever read. Period. She is THE Excellent Woman.