‘The Jane Austen of our day’ wrote A L Rowse. ‘I could go on reading her for ever.’ Yes, I know the feeling.
2013 is a brilliant year for fans of Barbara Pym; her centenary is being celebrated, and there are some splendid new editions of her novels being promoted, with introductions by popular authors such as Alexander McCall Smith, Mavis Cheek and Jilly Cooper. I found a table full of them in our local Waterstones, with a tempting offer for June…as Mavis Cheek writes, ‘Re-reading the entire canon, ten novels in all, has been pure bliss.’
It’s surprising (and reassuring) that Barbara Pym is so much admired by men, for much of the subtle comedy in her novels revolves around their not always endearing weaknesses and foibles. Do they recognise themselves and feel grateful that alongside the sharpness of wit there is tenderness and forgiveness to be found among the excellent women who pepper the novels?
Barbara Pym’s world is full of people like ourselves. Such a relief. No dungeons, designer living, desperate villains. But anyone who dismisses her as niminy-piminy has made a mistake. She’s never going to be up for the bad sex scene award, but passion of all kinds is there all right, along with poverty, homosexual love, infidelity, loneliness and cruel disappointment.
So as with Jane Austen, the novels may appear to be about the small doings of ordinary people, but they are lifted up into great and lasting literature by Barbara Pym’s extraordinary ear for the hidden tragedies as well as the small poignancies and comedies of our common experience. Such riches!
There’s a Barbara Pym Society centenary conference ‘Remembering Barbara’ at Oxford on August 30-September 1. It sounds wonderful. More details at http://www.barbara-pym.org