In 1943, mourning the end of a short-lived love affair that would leave her (even months later) sitting “desolately by the fire shivering uncontrollably with an aching head and longing to be cherished,” Barbara Pym recorded walking by a pre-Raphaelite tomb and brooding a little. At this point her diary takes a turn:
You (reader) may say, Why do you make such a thing of it all? To which I will snap (like Trivia) Well, what about your own life? Is it so full of large, big wonderful things that you don’t need tombs and daffodils and your own special intolerable bird, with an old armchair or two and occasional readings from Matthew Arnold and Coventry Patmore?
In ’43, Pym was not even a published novelist (and would not be for several years). She was her own reader, both chiding herself and coming to her own defense. But it was this kind of two-step, from sorrow to humor and back again, that came to define what was best in her fiction. After 1963, when she experienced a rather different sort of rejection—when no one would publish her anymore—she repeated this sharp question in a slightly different way: “What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? . . . What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?”
Pym’s own life can be summed up in short order: born 1913, died 1980. In between: an Oxford education, twelve novels, lifelong spinsterhood, and a thriving correspondence with many friends, including Philip Larkin. Beginning in 1950, she published six decently successful novels only to be shown the door by Jonathan Cape, her publishing house, on the grounds that “in present conditions we could not sell a sufficient number of copies to cover costs.” Many years of rejection followed, only for Pym to be gloriously reinstated by the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, when two separate critics picked her as the most underrated novelist of the past seventy-five years. In the wave of interest that followed, she was even nominated for the Booker Prize. All the novels that she wrote in isolation were published, though she did not live to see them all in print, as she soon died of cancer.
And the books? They are full of spinster heroines, tea, Anglican clergymen, jumble sales, and the occasional marriage; cheery romance and metaphysical poetry and humorous observation. “They’ve moved me to a new office and I don’t like it at all,” a bureaucrat glumly observes in her second book, Excellent Women, published in 1952. “Different pigeons come to the windows.” These were the books “obsessed with trivia,” which, to Pym, eventually came to represent something so unfashionable that it could be, perhaps, of interest to no one but her. Or, if they were of interest to others—the kinds of people who had once gotten books out of the private lending libraries—they were not of interest to the sort of person that book publishers had in mind.
Whether or not she deserved this rejection is, in a sense, what every treatment of Pym is left trying to answer. “How Pleasant to Know Miss Pym” (1971), by her friend Robert Smith, was the first big essay on Pym and a conscious effort to get her published again, but ended up being a somewhat backhanded series of compliments. Smith set out to try to prove that her books were more than “books for a bad day,” but along the way he conceded that her books were “small beer,” that her style is “flat and rather featureless,” and that her books stand mostly as “a record of their time.”
So here’s my own line: Pym’s “value,” if I wish to employ such a word, is not in an anthropological recording of the experience of middle-class unmarried English women in the mid-twentieth century. It is, instead, in opening up something that is sad and absurd and lovable about life, as witnessed by those who are not quite at the center of it and who therefore are able to see things a little more clearly. Though they are constantly going to church, her characters live at a level of triviality that keeps them from ever hitting the agonizing levels one might find in, for instance, a Graham Greene novel of the same period. In fact, the sins Pym’s characters contemplate are often as serious; adultery is not unthinkable for any of them. But they have too much of a sense of humor to wreck themselves. Not quite at home in the world, and yet firmly of it, they have, in the words of George Herbert, a “repining restlessness”—seeking, in their little lives, a rest that they cannot quite find.
It would, however, be foolish to deny that “spinsters, clergymen, and tea” conjures up something a little trivial about Pym; so does “unfashionable.” Always lurking around the corner is an inevitable but misguided comparison to Jane Austen, whose smooth plots Pym’s do not much resemble. This version of Pym I encounter in my nice secondhand paperbacks, illustrated as they are with tea and nostalgic silhouettes. “Are you looking for something cozy to peruse after watching Masterpiece Theatre?” these covers seem to say. “Well, then . . .”
But if you happen to start, as I did, with Quartet in Autumn (1977), a novel that follows four aging people (two men, two women) into retirement, you will find something rather different. Each struggles with isolation and a feeling of irrelevance; one of the women, withdrawing into total isolation, starves herself to death in a house that she has filled with tinned food. Though the book ends on an ambiguously hopeful note, as the survivors gather at her funeral, it is a sad reflection on growing old in a world that regards you as dead already. “Everyone says these books are so funny!” a friend of mine wrote to me after reading it. “What is wrong with everyone?”
Human relationships are characterized, most of all, by a lack of reciprocity. Someone is always caring without being cherished in return. Many of Pym’s characters face the knowledge that while they may have a duty to care for others, they will never be able to rely on others to care for them. This knowledge can become something like despair or anger, though often not for very long. Sometimes, it simply becomes practicality: Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women works at a charity called the Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen precisely because she knows she will need to depend on such charities when she herself ages. Others forsake the duty to care in order to withdraw from the world; but as Quartet in Autumn shows, such withdrawal is dangerous.
That’s the women, anyway. The men in Pym’s novels are usually the cared-for. They are surrounded by women who cook their meals, type up their manuscripts, and craft the indices of their books. They are, above all, hungry for affection and care but unaware of their hunger. If they receive affection to a degree that seems to demand something of them in return, the loving object (not always a woman—there are a handful of gay couples) is usually cast aside.
For Pym, humor chases grief until each resolves itself into the other; our absurdity saddens us but our sadness strikes us as absurd. Our loves and sorrows ennoble us and make us ridiculous. What are we, with our middling dramas and our old armchairs, to have the presumption to suffer as we do? As Mildred Lathbury comments in Excellent Women, “Life was like that for most of us—the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations.” But no matter how little and useless, a life always matters to the person stuck living it.
“Excellent Women seemed better than I remembered it, full of a harsh kind of suffering,” Philip Larkin wrote to Pym in 1964. “One senses not only that Mildred is suffering but that nobody can see why she shouldn’t suffer, like a Victorian cab horse.” Pym’s second and greatest novel, Excellent Women portrays the small hurts that we carry through life. Almost no one in it is really bad; the characters are all varying degrees of unintentionally selfish and willfully unaware, with the exception of Mildred Lathbury, the ultra-perceptive and even more self-deprecating narrator-heroine, a spinster who works for a charity while also volunteering her efforts at her church, St. Mary’s.
Mildred finds herself involved in the domestic drama of the married couple, Helena and Rockingham Napier, that moves into the flat beneath her. Helena is an anthropologist who is having a kind of one-sided affair of the heart with a fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone (a haughty and unfriendly convert to the Church of England). Rockingham (or “Rocky”) is an attractive Army officer lately returned to England (who has probably been unfaithful to her abroad). Meanwhile, the vicar of St. Mary’s, Julian Malory, becomes embroiled in a domestic drama of his own and also turns to Mildred for help.
The Napiers are beautiful people (always morally suspect), careless with their belongings and above all with feelings. When Mildred meets one of Rocky’s old flirtations from his time serving in Italy, she ends up confronting him; unable to remember the woman she is talking about, he says mildly, “there were so many.”
As the novel goes on, the demands placed on Mildred become increasingly absurd. At one point, she is soothing Rocky over a conflict with his wife, cleaning his kitchen, comforting Julian Malory over another trouble, when she receives a call from Helena Napier asking for help packing a suitcase; she has also been charged with informing Helena that Everard Bone is not in love with her. Her eventual rebellion comes when Everard Bone invites her over for dinner, not to entertain her, but so that she can cook for him. She refuses, though not without reflecting that “the thought of him alone with his meat and his cookery book was unbearable.”
In the end, she explains to Everard, there are “excellent women,” for whom one feels “respect and esteem,” but never love. These are the unmarried women who work in churches and for charity and whose time is always open to helping others. Set against the excellent women are women who are, in some practical sense, helpless; such helplessness attracts a kind of love, or at least attention.
Mildred longs not for marriage but for reciprocated affection—a trust that she can be cared for as well. Failing that, a simple recognition of her work might do. Neither of these things, however, seems readily forthcoming. There is no real solution to her dilemma, because in the end it depends on other people’s coming to know her. All Mildred can do is understand it.
No salvation to this particular problem is offered. Mildred will not be given the soothing balm of love and marriage; she ends the book in the same place that she was before. She is invited to dinner again by Everard Bone and discovers that he has, by way of apology, had the dinner cooked for her in advance; but his aim in inviting her is, alas, to persuade her to correct the proofs of his book and help him to create the index. Once excellent, always excellent.
There is some hope here, however delicate. Everard Bone is perhaps the first person truly to ask Mildred for help rather than merely assuming she will help him. It’s a gesture, however incomplete, that he is beginning to recognize Mildred as a person with feelings, too. Though Mildred is not entirely willing to trust that this asking will last, it could be the opening-up of a new kind of relation—one that mixes, as she craves, respect and love. Mildred may be left where she began; but Everard, even if slowly, is beginning to inch toward her.
Do we love Mildred? Not everyone finds her self-deprecation and her troubles endearing. Virtue can be a turn-off. John Updike, in reviewing Pym, called her “one of the last . . . of the great narrating English virgins,” and he did not mean it entirely as a compliment. Some find difficulty in mustering respect or love: A friend of mine has a secondhand copy filled with hostile marginalia, referring to Mildred at one point as “you boring woman.”
If we are looking for a more timely heroine, someone like Helena might present herself as the more attractive choice: untidy (like us), selfish (like us), and prone to bad decisions (like us). Or somebody like Wilmet Forsyth, the decidedly un-excellent heroine of A Glass of Blessings, who sizes up the Mildred in her life like so:
Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless—she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself.
Wilmet, tall, beautiful, well-dressed, and, most importantly, married, recoils from the air of do-goodery that Beamish seems to exude. This resentment is at least half envy: Even in her marriage, Wilmet feels unnecessary and excluded. She and her husband, Rodney, have no children, though whether that is by choice is unclear. Without much to occupy her time, other than fending off the roving husbands of her friends, Wilmet wishes vaguely for a sense of purpose. Nothing coming to hand, she channels most of her energy into dressing well.
Purpose finally arrives in the form of Piers, the disappointing brother of Wilmet’s best friend. Piers, for whatever reason, has failed to make anything of himself; he spends most of his time avoiding work and drinking. Wilmet is taken with the idea of reforming him. Just as surely, Piers begins to blossom into a more bearable person. Here, Wilmet believes, is the transformative effect of love. At last, she has a reason for being.
It’s love, but not her love. Piers is living with another man, a slightly lower-class man named Keith, and it’s this unimpressive young man who has transformed Piers. When Wilmet discovers this, Piers informs her—coldly, but probably truthfully—that she is incapable of love. All of Wilmet’s much-prized usefulness turns out to be her own invention. Indeed, not only can everybody’s life go on without her, it has been, while she has been wrapped up in a dream of Piers.
Wilmet’s inability to love could be characterized a little more kindly as a deep despair that has become so all-encompassing she no longer notices it. She senses dimly that the solution to her despair would lie in service to others, but is too trapped within herself to offer it. Freedom only comes through destruction—offered, however callously, by Piers. All the same, even this destruction must take place within a humdrum life. Poor Wilmet gets no usefully external bombing of London to accompany her sudden and terrible self-knowledge or adulterous love. Instead, she must hail a taxi home and carry on in much the same world as she has always lived in. She grows, not in sudden epiphanies, but in small and humiliating steps.
A Glass of Blessings was Philip Larkin’s favorite Pym (mine, too). Larkin’s affinity for Pym is unsurprising: If one imagines an older Mildred who is a bit of a boozer and at last fed up with eternally helping others, it is also easy to imagine her with The Less Deceived sitting by her bedside along with her Christina Rossetti, her biography of Newman, and her cookery books. In their letters to one another, Pym and Larkin come off as two hermits together, both concerned with portraying something similar about life. The absurd-tragic sensibility of Pym’s novels is present also for Larkin, though often it manifests itself more along the lines of obscene-sublime.
But while Larkin was penning wistful reflections to Pym about his “hermit life,” he was also writing apologetic letters to his longtime lover, Monica Jones, about his other girlfriend, Maeve Brennan. “It’s my own unwillingness to give myself to anyone else that’s at fault,” he wrote, “like promising to stand on one leg for the rest of one’s life.” In “The Life with a Hole in It,” he evokes resignation:
Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get.
Even so, as he wrote those lines, he maintained, through careful refusals, a life where he could live as he wanted (or, as he would put, a life where he lived not as he didn’t want)—and, for the most part, he did. The unchosen limitations were only those universals of death and ill health, which he properly feared. If Pym and Larkin wrote from a sense of life’s limitations, Larkin’s limitations were put there largely by his own design. Like Wilmet, he surrounded himself with some high walls, and then lamented that they were there.
This is a different kind of life from Pym’s, whose limits were not chosen and, in their way, deeply resented. Unlike Larkin, she was willing to give herself, but no one wanted the gift (though she sympathized, too, with the victim of unwanted love, who had an experience akin to “having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it”). She did want literary success, but encountered a publishing world that did not really value her work.
Self-determination is the great good of our time, of course; along with it, a kind of self-empowerment that turns every defeat into a victory: “If I really wanted it, I’d have gotten it; if it had been good for me, it would have happened.” But some defeats really are defeats that resolve themselves into no ultimate victory. And it’s this kind of defeat that we encounter in Pym’s diaries and in her novels: a lovable person whose love was persistently cast aside; fine novels that no one could be persuaded to read. The years of recognition, coming as they did only three years before her death, never really made up for years of suffering.
There is something in Pym’s work that runs deeper than Larkin’s, and, in the end, it was he and not she who accrued depth from their friendship. Withdrawal is simple. What is hard is to be rejected; to be relegated to the edge; to sacrifice for people who will never notice it; to accept that you have been given a life to live that seems so limited, so wasted, so thwarted at every turn.
It’s Pym that we see in the smudgy everyday world; Pym that we overhear in the conversations of strangers; Pym that we see in the faces of our friends. Pym when babies cry during their baptism, Pym in the floundering of a date the next table over, Pym when a member of the choir hits a bad note at an important time. For some novelists, God is approached through the ecstatic heights of love; but for Pym, God is present in the abrasive noise of a telephone ringing in the middle of a stately church service. Present, most of all, in the kind of thwarted mediocrity that her characters are stuck living. Present, that is to say, in life.
“Lunch at the Royal Commonwealth Society with Bob,” she wrote in one diary entry. “In the restaurant all those clergymen helping themselves from the cold table, it seems endlessly. But you mustn’t notice things like that if you’re going to be a novelist in 1968-9 and the 70s.” Luckily for us, however, she never stopped.
B. D. McClay is associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.
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