Barbara Pym

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Barbara Mary Crampton Pym (2 June 1913 – 11 January 1980) was an English novelist. In the 1950s she published a series of social comedies, of which the best known are Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958). In 1977 her career was revived when the critic Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin both nominated her as the most under-rated writer of the century. Her novel Quartet in Autumn (1977) was nominated for the Booker Prize that year, and she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


Early life and education[edit]

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born on 2 June 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire. She was privately educated at Queen’s Park School, a girls' school in Oswestry. From the age of twelve, she attended Huyton College, near Liverpool. She went on to study English at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

During World War II she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service.

Literary career[edit]

Pym worked at the International African Institute in London for seventeen years, beginning in 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal, Africa. This inspired her use of anthropologists as characters in some of her novels. Like an anthropologist, Pym adopted the role of observer of human life.

After some years of submitting stories to women's magazines, she published her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, with Jonathan Cape in 1950.[1] Thereafter she published eleven novels; two came out posthumously.

Pym's literary career is noteworthy for the long hiatus between 1963 and 1977. Despite early success and continuing popularity, her publisher Jonathan Cape rejected her manuscripts after 1961, considering her writing style old-fashioned. She approached other publishers, who also declined to publish her work. The turning point for Pym came with an influential article in 1977 in The Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent figures, the historian Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin, nominated her as "the most underrated writer of the 20th century".[1] Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence for seventeen years, but even his influence had previously been of no use in getting her a new publishing contract.

Pym was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn (1977), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and her work found a new readership in North America.[1] Two other novels, The Sweet Dove Died and An Academic Question, were subsequently published to critical acclaim.

Personal life[edit]

Pym never married, despite several close relationships with men. In her undergraduate days, these included Henry Harvey (a fellow Oxford student, who remained the love of her life),[2] and the future politician, Julian Amery.[3] In later years, she was romantically involved with BBC producer C. Gordon Glover[4] and antiques dealer Richard Roberts.[5]

Later years[edit]

After her retirement, Pym moved into Barn Cottage at Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister Hilary.

On 11 January 1980 Barbara Pym died of breast cancer, aged 66. Following her death, her sister Hilary continued to champion her work, and set up the Barbara Pym Society in 1993. Hilary lived at Barn Cottage until her own death in February 2005. The sisters played an active role in the social life of the village, and are both buried in Finstock churchyard. A blue plaque marking the cottage as an historic site was placed in 2006.

Barbara Pym's appearance on Desert Island Discs on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013 - the exact centenary date of her birth.[6]

Legacy and honours[edit]

  • Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
  • Blue plaque placed at her retirement home of Barn Cottage, Finstock.

Works and themes[edit]

Several strong themes link the works in the Pym canon, which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, and comedies of manners, studying the social activities connected with the Anglican church (Anglo-Catholic parishes in particular.) (Pym attended several churches during her lifetime, including St Michael and All Angels, Barnes, where she served on the Parish Church Council.)

Her works are deeper than that, however. She closely examines many aspects of women's and men's relations, including unrequited feelings of women for men, based on her own experience. Pym was also one of the first popular novelists to write sympathetically about unambiguously gay characters (most notably in A Glass of Blessings). She portrayed the layers of community and figures in the church seen through church functions. The dialogue is often deeply ironic. A tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.

Pym's diaries were published posthumously, under the title, A Very Private Eye (1985) ISBN 0-394-73106-9


Biography and autobiography[edit]

  • Hazel HoltA Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym (1990)
  • Barbara Pym – A Very Private Eye (1984)
  • Hilary Pym and Honor Wyatt – A la Pym: The Barbara Pym Cookery Book (1995)


  1. ^ a b c Christopher Fowler, "Invisible Ink: No. 68", The Independent, 13 March 2011, accessed 30 September 2011
  2. ^ James Runcie: "Miss Pym's Day Out". Accessed 17 March 2013
  3. ^ Faber, David, Speaking for England, London, 2005, ISBN 0-7432-5688-3
  4. ^ The Barbara Pym Society Conference 2002, Green Leaves, vol. 8 no. 2 (2002), ISSN 1360-9920
  5. ^ Linda McDougall, "Jane and Prudence and Barbara and Hazel: The Women Friends of Barbara Pym and How They Influenced Her Work" – Paper presented at the 14th North American Conference of the Barbara Pym Society Cambridge, Massachusetts, 17–18 March 2012
  6. ^ Jerry Dowlen (December 2013). "The very best Christmas features... Jerry Dowlen celebrates the life and centenary of Barbara Pym..." (monthly literary column). Paul Norman. Retrieved April 5, 2015. Barbara Pym’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013 

Further reading[edit]

  • Hazel K Bell (ed.) – No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church (2004)
  • Orna Raz – Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949–1962: the Writer as Hidden Observer (2007)

External links[edit]