Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

By the time I came of reading age”old enough to pass the portals of the library’s “youth department””the 1960s were past. I’d missed the cultural upheaval, but our family bookshelves told tales of surrender. Paperback copies of Catch-22 and The Naked Ape crouched like gargoyles among leather-bound Victorian classics; Charlotte Bront? rubbed shoulders with Kurt Vonnegut and Truman Capote.

It wasn’t clear how or when the gargoyles had made their way in among the saints, but, as I read through our library, I realized that books themselves must have changed dramatically since my grandparents wrote their names in the covers of Robinson Crusoe and Lay of the Last Minstrel. The newer books in our house”the psychedelic paperbacks with covers that shouted A HUNDRED THOUSAND COPIES SOLD! or NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!”all belonged to my teenage siblings. Nobody made books for “old” people anymore, that was obvious, and it never occurred to me that the situation might be unfair, even when my mother complained that she couldn’t find anything decent to read.

Some of this may help explain the story of the British writer Barbara Pym. I discovered Pym in my sophomore year of college, thanks to a friend who gave me her 1958 novel, A Glass of Blessings . I loved the book for its understated humor, the way its heroine, Wilmet, mocks her own lack of direction as she drifts through a world divided into church jumble sales, dull sherry parties, and a secret crush on a man who turns out to have a live-in “friend” named Keith. Though the copy was a reprint, I still thought we’d stumbled onto some lost treasure, a forgotten library gem. Soon enough I realized that what I’d stumbled onto was a gigantic literary bandwagon. In 1985, everybody seemed to be reading Barbara Pym, though she herself had been dead for several years.

Of course, people had different reactions to her. There were readers like me who became annoyingly obsessed with her novels; even our vocabulary reflected it. Whatever slang we’d been speaking before Barbara Pym, we quit using it and started tossing around tweedy words like unpleasantness and cloakroom . Against the advice of our teachers, we took to using the pronoun one as in “One regrets the unpleasantness in the cloakroom.” Less-besotted readers enjoyed Barbara Pym but lumped her in with Miss Read and other writers of “gentle fiction,” a condescending term if there ever was one.

Still others couldn’t see any attraction at all in Pym’s stories about women who dote on men and men who accept feminine devotion as their due. They considered her work depressing (men, she said herself, often found it so), uneventful, or simply shallow. A professor of mine said that he found her fiction (he’d read only one novel) “nothing but fluff.” How, he asked, could John Updike have praised her so highly?

For me, the most difficult criticism to answer is that Pym is thematically shallow. Some of this impression comes from her published diaries and letters, A Very Private Eye, organized posthumously by her sister and literary executor. The collection, read from beginning to end, reveals a complicated, perceptive woman who grew enormously over a lifetime. It remains, however, the young Barbara who speaks first and leaves the most lasting impression: a giddy Oxford co-ed with a passion for “our greater English poets” and a greater passion for beautiful young men. The most consistent object of her affection was Henry Harvey, a medievalist who ran with an intellectual set, including the future literary critic Robert Liddell. Henry was prickly and difficult, but as an intermittent Lothario he had a druglike effect on poor Barbara. She couldn’t seem to get free of him.

It’s hard, from Pym’s own writings, to get a clear picture of this off-kilter romance. (Plenty of readers have tried to picture it, especially the scene in the diaries where Robert Liddell caught the two of them “reading Samson Agonistes in bed with nothing on.”) Fortunately”and I think this answers the charge of shallowness”Pym was already learning in youth to turn her personal pain to comedy, usually in inverse proportion. Her answer to Henry Harvey’s disregard for her was to write a “Pymified” version of the affair in Some Tame Gazelle , with Harvey cast as an unlikely archdeacon and herself as his middle-aged spinster-devotee Belinda Bede: “Belinda was trying hard to concentrate on her sins, but somehow the atmosphere was not very suitable this morning and she was at last forced to give it up. Staring at the Archdeacon’s back, she reflected that he was still very handsome. Perhaps he would read aloud to them when he came to supper tonight, though, as she would be the only person who wanted to listen, it might be rather difficult to arrange . . . . By the time the Archdeacon had ascended the pulpit steps, Belinda had . . . settled herself comfortably in her pew, as did the rest of the congregation, having just sung with great vigor that the world was very evil.”

Though she wrote Some Tame Gazelle around 1935, in her early twenties, Pym wasn’t able to publish it until much later, in 1950. So much had changed for her by then. She had endured a series of unsuccessful romances, served as a wartime censor, become a more regular churchgoer, and taken a job in London as an editor for the journal Africa at the International African Institute. It’s hard to say which of these experiences had the strongest influence on her next five novels, the group Robert Liddell referred to as her “canon.” Pym’s gift was literary alchemy: a way of combining the most unlikely characters (vicars, anthropologists, masculine charmers, spinsters) into a unified and evenly textured world. The catalyst for it all was her own affectionate brand of irony, the balance of an extremely compassionate nature with a dangerously sharp insight into human behavior.

Excellent Women appeared in 1952, followed by Jane and Prudence, Less than Angels, A Glass of Blessings, and No Fond Return of Love . These novels of the 1950s (she finished the last by 1960) all share some elements: the distinctive Pym irony, the landscape of London with its crowded lunchrooms and crippled churches, and her recognizable character types. Some of these types include the “splendid” women who know how to deal with life’s pivotal events: “birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather.” Or the maddeningly or perhaps endearingly vain men, whether priests or anthropologists, who imagine that any woman should be glad to do their laundry and proofread their manuscripts.

Of course, the world changed a lot between 1950 and 1960, and, as much as possible without compromising her style, Pym tried to reflect those changes. Though she continued to write about church life, her heroines lived increasingly on the fringes of Anglicanism, sometimes indifferent to religion, sometimes marveling that their lives should be so split between parish teas and sherry parties. After No Fond Return of Love , Pym fully expected to publish her next novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, which centered on an old-fashioned woman in her thirties who falls in love with a younger man outside her own class. The book was hardly a paean to the “good old days,” being set in a tumbledown neighborhood with a parish church full of African immigrants. Still, the class-as-a-barrier-to-romance conflict may have seemed anachronistic or tame to the editors at Jonathan Cape, who were by then swept up in the new wave of shock fiction. In 1963, they rejected An Unsuitable Attachment with the dismissive words “in present condition we could not sell a sufficient number of copies to cover costs, let alone make any profit.”

Sixteen years of relative silence followed the publication of No Fond Return of Love. Pym grieved during that time but didn’t stop writing. “Novel reading is a kind of pleasure,” she wrote to Henry Harvey, “even if nothing comes of it in worldly terms.” For all that her books didn’t fit the new template of popular fiction, her novels continued to sell, and loyal readers asked for more. One of these readers was the poet Philip Larkin, who began corresponding with her in 1961 and continually expressed dismay that literature was so much at the mercy of market forces: “It seems such a sad state of affairs if such tender, perceptive and intelligent work can’t see the light, just because it won’t ‘go’ in America, or some tasteless chump thinks it won’t ‘go’ in paperback.”

Larkin never stopped encouraging Pym. In 1977, he finally had the opportunity to wield some influence in the public, naming her “most underrated novelist of the century” in a Times Literary Supplement survey. (Pym was the only living author to receive two nominations; the other came from a long-time fan, Lord David Cecil.) In the last three years of her life, she saw her fortunes restored and redoubled: She published two new novels, received a Booker Prize nomination for Quartet in Autumn , and was even the subject of a BBC program, Tea with Miss Pym . The one dark spot in her Job-like recovery was her worsening health. She finally succumbed to abdominal cancer in 1980, with her last novel just completed.

Pym’s popularity spread to the United States, beyond her first audience (people who remembered World War II) to the baby boomers. It even spread to me, studying at an evangelical college in northern Illinois. As I read her, I felt that my own world, with its parallel ranks of academics and clerics, its dedicated missionaries and career virgins, had more in common with Barbara Pym’s England than it did with America of the 1980s.

So what would happen if I wrote about my world in her voice, her style? As she might say, “An attempt was made.” To fulfill a class assignment, I dramatized an actual Sunday dinner at the home of a professor, couching the dialogue in thick irony and trying my best to sound Pymish with lines such as “The sight of the Greek professor with his beard and thick glasses made them thankful for their major, health, which they knew was a refuge from large reading assignments and teachers with wide vocabularies.” The story failed, of course, not only because of my artificial style but because evangelical culture”with its earnest moral consciousness, its emphasis on personal scrutiny-doesn’t make an ideal vehicle for affectionate irony.

I think that my failure to Pymify earnest evangelicals relates to Pym’s own failure to find a publisher in the equally earnest 1960s. For all their apparent licentiousness, those years had an evangelical quality of their own, a dogmatic insistence that what everybody needed was to think deeply yet also monolithically about everything. Affectionate irony, as light as it seems, requires rebellion against orthodoxies of perception and feeling. The stronger our passion about a subject, the more disturbing the call for laughter.

In the mid-1960s, even while she tried to publish An Unsuitable Attachment , Pym finished a strange novel called The Sweet Dove Died . It was the story of a woman in love with a much younger, homosexual man, based on her own infatuation with an antiques salesman who enjoyed her attention for a while and then “offloaded her,” as she put it. The pattern was familiar, but her increasing age and recent disappointments had made the circumstances especially humiliating. As so often before, she chose to fictionalize her pain. For the first time, though, she offered it up without the relief of inverse comedy. Yes, she maintained her cool, old-fashioned tone”a sort of sepia tone, like black-and-white television on a color set”but she also introduced a new measure of realism, with a manipulative but pathetic heroine and a believably blank hero. When the book finally came out, contemporary critics lauded it.

This is the novel I heard an English professor describe as “fluff.” Reading it among her bright, confident novels of the 1950s, one must agree”almost. If The Sweet Dove Died now seems spiritless and timid, we must forgive Pym and put the blame on the publishing fashion she was trying so hard to accommodate. As in her failed romances, Pym’s literary trouble lay in trying to please men (in this case, publishers) who were looking for something else. “I get moments of gloom and pessimism,” she wrote, “when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again.”

Actually, there were still plenty of people around who could “like” Pym’s writing. After the famous TLS survey, angst-weary readers came out in droves to greet her resurrected novels. The 1980s made her a literary sensation. Now, a quarter century later, Pym’s popularity remains as high as ever, while her reputation has steadily grown among critics.

For me, raised on the dreary fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, Barbara Pym’s affectionate irony was a revolution of its own. Though I never successfully applied it to my own writing, it colored the way I looked at life, helping me find a way out of personal pain, or at least giving me hints of a way. Now I see less comedy and more essential sadness in even the brightest of her novels”a feminine longing that underlies all the jokes about dutiful women, charming but vain men, tribalized anthropologists, high-minded priests. I also see the strengthening effects of love and forgiveness upon comedy. If the literary archdeacons of her time couldn’t appreciate it, well . . . one does see the irony in that.

Betty Smartt Carter is the author of two novels, including I Read It in the Wordless Book, and a memoir , Home Is Always the Place You Just Left.