Jane Austen is even more revered in America than in the UK – if that is possible. The same might be said of Barbara Pym whom Alexander McCall Smith described as ‘a modern Jane Austen’. Both authors have distinctive instantly recognisable voices; prose which can be savoured over and over again.
Salley Vickers in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels explains the points of resemblance between the novels of the two authors as being ‘similarly restrained in tone, with that glimmering undersheen of English irony’. It is this perhaps that appeals so much to Americans.
At a recent meeting of the Barbara Pym society in London where members heard an altogether delightful lecture about servants and home help of all kinds in her novels it was noticeable that it was the Americans in the audience who asked the more rigorous questions. Barbara Pym’s work is included alongside Jane Austen in English literature degree syllabuses at American universities.
So-called quiet novels are liable to last longest in the collective consciousness, argues Salley Vickers, and that ‘nothing in Jane Austen’s lifetime compares with her current popularity; her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral makes no mention of her career as a writer.’
A connection between the two novelists that is particularly appealing is when Barbara Pym wrote to Philip Larkin: ‘Here I am sixty-one (it looks worse spelled out in words) and only six novels published – no husband, no children.’ He wrote back: ‘Didn’t Jane Austen write six novels and not have a husband or children?’