The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym
An ‘engrossing biography’ of the writer, whose life was much messier than her Austenesque novels suggest
It would be easy to assume from Barbara Pym’s Austenesque novels – with their “unmarried sisters, curates and Sunday lunches at the vicarage” – that the woman who wrote them led a “quiet, uneventful life”, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. Not so, as Paula Byrne shows in this “engrossing biography”: Pym’s life was actually rather strange. The “fun begins” in 1931, the year she went up to Oxford, said Lucy Atkins in The Sunday Times. There, she adopted a “risqué alter ego” called Sandra, and “discovered sex” with a handsome fellow student. Upon graduating in 1934, Pym visited Germany and fell in love with an SS officer, with whom she became so “wildly smitten” that she bleached her hair and sported a swastika brooch. Byrne puts this down to “stubborn romanticism” – not real enthusiasm for the Nazi cause – and when war broke out, she “woke up to her appalling error of judgement”.
Throughout her life, Pym had a “masochistic habit” of going after men who were either gay or committed elsewhere, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. “This led to behaviour that today would count as stalking.” Her career also had its torments: having been published throughout the 1950s, she was dumped by Jonathan Cape in 1960, as her novels were deemed “old ladyish”. She spent 20 years in the wilderness, before her career revived after Philip Larkin nominated her in the TLS in 1977 as “one of the most under-appreciated writers of the past 75 years”. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was published that same year, and shortlisted for the Booker. There followed three years of “gratifying fuss” before she died, aged 66, of cancer. Byrne’s excellent, “deeply affectionate biography” does justice to this remarkable woman.
William Collins 704pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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