Spinster Class

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne. London: William Collins. 704 pages. $35.

The cover of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym

AT THE END of a long Michaelmas term working in the Barbara Pym archives in the Bodleian (how about that for an opening gambit?), I, six months pregnant with my second child, took a train out past Charlbury, caught a tiny bus, and deposited myself, thankfully in Wellington boots, on the side of the road near Finstock. I walked across two very muddy, December fields and found myself loitering outside of Holy Trinity, a mild, rundown, Victorian church. The church itself is a bit of a mishmash of Gothic Revival and practicality, with its 1905 chancel poking out awkwardly through its 1841 bones. Two women, one of them the church warden, were putting up the Christmas greenery, and a man, when he asked me why I’d come, said, “Oh, I knew Barbara.”

“Are we going to have coffee?” boomed the warden. “It’s only instant,” was the answer. “Tea or coffee?” she asked with authority; but then the milk was off, so black instant coffee was all we had in the end. 

PAULA BYRNE’S EXPANSIVE new biography of Barbara Pym captures, in part, the odd amalgam of pathos, sentiment, and grinding ambition that marks Pym’s life and work. In her youth, Pym, born in Shropshire in 1913, repeatedly set herself up for romantic disappointment: her early loves all married other women. Many of her relationships—while she was a student at the recently coeducational Oxford in the ’30s, during her military service in World War II, and afterward—were sexual. It is this aspect of Pym’s personality—her sexual desire routed through a kind of blithe romance—that becomes all the more striking as she began to write clever, deft novels about churchgoing women whose relationship to sex is murky at best. 

Pym began working, in earnest, on novels as a teenager. And in those novels, sexual life is transformed into something entirely different. Her greatest character type is the spinster. In Some Tame Gazelle (1950), which she began as a student at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, Pym transforms herself and her sister Hilary into two middle-aged women, Belinda and Harriet Bede, who are both concerned with attractions that will go unrequited (Belinda dotes on their married neighbor, the Archdeacon Hoccleve, while Harriet coaxes herself into a brown velvet dress to impress the new curate). There’s something gently scandalous about Belinda knowing what size pajamas the Archdeacon takes, and about this pair’s jolly affection for reading Samson Agonistes to one another. But the real-life experience from which it’s drawn—in college, Pym and her lover Henry Harvey read Samson Agonistes aloud to each other, naked, in bed—well, that’s another thing altogether. 

It’s easy to dismiss Pym’s novels as light, chatty comedies of manners, until you remember the references to British literary history—Hoccleve, Bede, and Gerard Langbaine, for starters—that thread through all of her work. When you look more closely, though, you notice the formal innovation—built from an undergraduate habit of apt literary quotation—that quietly ushers in larger themes: women’s professional lives, nonmarital sex, gay representation, etc. Moreover, Pym conjures an England broken by the Second World War, and only just coming into coherence again. The war may not be a central topic of every novel, as it is of Excellent Women (1952), but the social and cultural upheaval of the postwar period is reflected in everything from the anthropologists at the heart of Less than Angels (1955) to the gay characters in A Glass of Blessings (1958). 

Pym’s own intellectual history supports this brittle, delicate, cowed national consciousness: she studied English at St. Hilda’s College and later studied German, which in turn led to her posting to Naples in the Wrens. After the war, she worked as an assistant editor for Africa, a major anthropological journal in London. And she used all of this to build her novels, some of them focusing on sniping churchgoers, others detailing the horrors of romance at academic conferences. What remains striking about Pym’s novels is that, despite their surprisingly wide frames, they feel like cozy miniatures, with the emphases on detailing every minor grumpy feeling on the way to genial coziness.

Byrne uses Pym’s fiction, primarily, to decode the novelist’s real-life romances. Her episodic approach offers a tidy chronology. We follow Barbara on her romantic peregrinations, touching on the Oxford of the 1930s, the life of a Wren in WWII, a single editrix’s life in postwar London. Byrne’s focus, perhaps shrewdly, is on a sort of sentimental eroticism. In her hands, Pym’s loves and flirtations—the moody, irritable, movie-star handsome Henry Harvey; the urbane, weak, married Gordon Glover; the Nazi officer Friedbert Glück, whom she romanced in Germany in the 1930s—are all snapshots of romance that is searching, urgent, and weirdly imbricated in political and social upheaval. But the major project of Pym’s life, turning the deeply mundane activities of a single woman in England into surprisingly complex novelistic art, falls somewhat by the wayside in Byrne’s account. One can see easily the ways that Pym’s loves produce a biopic-ready frame, but without a strong account of the ways Pym transforms her lived experience into fiction, we don’t get the story of how she became one of England’s greatest comic novelists. We don’t get an artist’s life, just vibes. 

A significant challenge in this approach is that following a young woman’s romantic history requires a biographer to make her into something of a heroine. But Pym, in some significant ways, is not a comfortable heroine, and in fact excelled, with formal invention and insight, at conveying awkwardness in her work. Pym is a great distiller of mild discomfort, of sheepishness, of putting on a brave face. It’s no mistake that Pym’s greatest subjects include the difficulty of behaving well on a church committee—and the terrible difference between the good people we want to be, and the grudging, peevish, frazzled people we are.

Where Byrne’s book shines is in its treatment of Pym’s complicated relationship with Nazi Germany. Pym’s interest in Germany began while she was at Oxford, and she traveled frequently to Germany before the war. After her third trip, in 1935, she adopted a German persona in Oxford, dyeing her hair blond, wearing a Tyrolean hat, and trying to convince undergraduates she was really German. Her affair with “dear Friedbert”—whose Nazism, in her first trips to Germany, she brushed aside as a sentimental nationalism—put her in proximity with true horror: Byrne notes that while Pym visited Glück, he spent a lot of time traveling to Pirna, where the Nazis were busy repurposing an insane asylum to be “a ‘euthanasia’ killing centre for the disabled.” The affair petered out before the murderous truths behind Hitler’s grasp for power became evident, but Pym’s ignorance became a major embarrassment, and one that she worked hard to minimize in the postwar years. By the opening days of the war, Byrne shows us a young woman focused on her home-front work, worrying over the evacuees at her mother’s house and proud of her work in the women’s territorial army (ATS). By the end of the war, Pym was horrified by her earlier naivete, aghast at Germany’s genocidal projects, and sheepish and secretive about her relationship with Friedbert. 

Barbara Pym, Oswestry, England, 1935. © The Barbara Pym Society
Barbara Pym, Oswestry, England, 1935. © The Barbara Pym Society

ONE PROBLEM of biography is that the biographer must present a coherence in a life that is necessarily built of minute episodes. Pym’s life—with its large arcs of romance, and its similarly large arcs of literary frustration—appears to operate on a perfect scale. Byrne’s work is generous and affectionate; her interest in both Pym’s wished-for life, and in the life that Pym ended up living, is deep. But the problem of Pym is that the scale of the biography is, in some deep sense, wrong for her story. Her life—both her romantic and writerly lives—moved in fits and starts, with sweeps of love and ambition tempered by a biting, banal dreariness. It is a frustration for the biographer, and for Pym, that Pym’s story does not involve a romance that persists, or a literary fame that develops and deepens in a steady fashion. 

Pym was an avid, acute diarist, and Byrne shows this material to great effect. Other records remain: Pym’s novel drafts, in various stages of completeness, show the way she worked in clear detail. Drawing from life, Pym turned her friends and lovers into brightly portrayed, sensitive, funny versions of themselves, boiling out people’s meanness and solecisms into a sweetened, lighter novelistic confection. Pym digested her own life for her plotlines, and the attention to difficulty, nastiness, and sanctimony in her novels show a writer who sees clearly despite her own sentimental investments. More than that, Pym is gentle, even generous, to people whose cruelty she notices in such detail. In the example of Henry Harvey, her Oxford lover, Pym transforms him into Some Tame Gazelle’s comical Archdeacon Hoccleve, a selfish, small-minded, demanding brat. In life, Pym maintained her friendship with Harvey well after their affair is over, and this, too, points to a peculiar feature of Pym’s writing; temperamental horribleness doesn’t make one unlovable, even when one is unloved. 

MY NOTES from Finstock feature a lot of haphazard scribbling about the ambitious former vicar who wanted to smarten up his church, with a carved rood screen and an ornate chancel to match his Anglo-Catholic views, but I wrote down his name as Hon. Mr. Cary-Elwes, which can’t be quite right. The church has a nicely maintained Kempe Studios stained-glass crucifixion, with lovely, well-muscled figures and a beautiful Jesus. But the real kismet of the day, the thing that pushes a funny little literary pilgrimage into the kind of thing Pym herself wrote about was meeting Michael Collard, the man who knew the Pyms. He told me about Hilary’s failed marriage, her chattiness, her deep depression during Barbara’s illness, how Barbara laughed at being called “my dear” by nurses toward the end of her life. Once, he told me, Hilary had been invited to give a talk about her sister to the parishioners at the (very gay) church in Warwick Square in London, and he, Michael, had driven her down to London. The image of Hilary sat up on a brightly lit dais, explaining her sister to an adoring crowd is just like a set piece in The Sweet Dove Died, as is the sharpness with which Hilary disabused young Michael of his notion that he might be invited to their lunch, leaving him to wander about Pimlico while Hilary was fed and watered in great style. 

The problem—the challenge—of Pym’s fiction is the combination of pathos, detail, and ironic detachment. More feeling than Austen, slyer than Woolf, Pym’s fiction is a blend of manic chatter and observation—anything to fill the space of silence—and the deep banality that everyone, everywhere is looking for someone to see them in their best light. 

Claire Jarvis is a writer and critic living in the Bay Area.