From Paula Fox to Richard Yates, literary rediscoveries are in vogue. The latest model is wry satirist Barbara Pym
By Laura Miller
It sometimes seems there are two schools of enjoyable fiction. In one, the fate of the world hangs in the balance: There’s running and shooting on the low-brow end of this spectrum, and scheming and intrigue higher up. In the other school, the stakes are low — in fact, that’s a key to its appeal. Making this latter sort of fiction work is infinitely more difficult, but the author who pulls it off, especially if he or she is funny, can command a fearsomely loyal readership. Barbara Pym is one of those authors.
Born a solicitor’s daughter in the West Midlands of England in 1913, educated at Oxford, serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II and working for much of the rest of her life at the International African Institute in London, Pym was a quintessential middle-class Englishwoman, much like her idol, Jane Austen. Like Austen, Pym wrote comedies of manners about the members of her own class, modeling the characters on people she knew. Her novels are populated by vicar’s wives, dotty unmarried sisters living in rural villages, holders of mid-level office jobs in sleepy London concerns and assorted anthropologists (based on the ones she met at the institute).
Pym had a modest success with the first six of these novels, publishing during the 1950s, but in the early ’60s, one publisher after another rejected “An Unsuitable Attachment.” She believed this was because her low-key style and unsensational subject matter had gone out of fashion. To a correspondent she conceded that her seventh book “might appear naïve and unsophisticated, though it isn’t really, to an unsympathetic publisher’s reader, hoping for that novel about negro homosexuals, young men in advertising, etc.” She was, probably and typically, right on the nose about that.
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