Anyone who has ever given or lent a copy of a much-loved novel to a friend is likely to be familiar with the occasional disappointing response. It might include the suggestive silence, or the apologetic, half-embarrassed ‘sorry, not my kind of thing’ or even (and this is worse!) ‘I can see why you enjoyed it, but…’
It may still surprise and even disconcert when the people we love don’t ‘get’ an author who means so much to us, but we’ve learnt not to allow this unaccountable gap to mar our friendship. It doesn’t change what we feel about them.
But comedians Kathy Burke and Tom Allen savaging Barbara Pym as ‘twee’ and ‘boring’ in a Radio 4 discussion of the novel Crampton Hodnet provoked bewilderment among Barbara Pym readers. How was it possible that these two critics had entirely missed the point of her novels?
One comment among the extensive online discussion which especially resonated was that criticism of Barbara Pym feels personal to him in a way that it doesn’t with other authors. But why should we mind when Barbara Pym is dismissed or mocked when we can shrug off adverse criticism of other authors we enjoy? Perhaps it is because Barbara Pym writes so tellingly (and with a sharp wit that is always funny but somehow never cruel) about ordinary people, dealing with the small things of life which are also the big things. Twee and boring seem to be the wrong words for such richness.
But it’s more than that. When Barbara Pym’s characters make reappearances in her later novels, it’s like being given news of old and dear friends. They have an extraordinary habit of living alongside us; in wilder moments we may even feel we are becoming one of them. No wonder an attack can hurt…