Barbara Pym

(1902 – 1986)

Barbara PymBiographical Sketch

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). After she had not been able to publish a book for over15 years, in 1977 her career was revived when the critic Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin nominated her as the most under-rated writer of the century in a Times Literary Supplement feature article. Her novel Quartet in Autumn (1977) was subsequently nominated for the Booker Prize, and in the year before her death she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

A graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, Pym wrote the initial version of her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, in 1935, but it was rejected by numerous publishers. She wrote another novel, Civil to Strangers, in 1936 and several novellas in the following years, all of which would only see publication after Pym’s death. In 1940, Pym wrote the novel Crampton Hodnet, which would also be published only after her death. In June 1946, Pym started work at the International African Institute in London. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa, where she would work until her retirement in 1974. This inspired her use of anthropologists as characters in some of her novels, notably Excellent Women, Less than Angels, and An Unsuitable Attachment.

After some years of submitting stories to women’s magazines, Pym heavily revised Some Tame Gazelle, which now was accepted by Jonathan Cape for publication in 1950. The poet Philip Larkin regarded Some Tame Gazelle as Pym’s Pride and Prejudice. The novel follows the lives of two middle-aged spinster sisters in an English village before the War, who are both given the possibility of love. That same year (1950), the BBC also accepted a radio play written by Pym (Something to Remember).

Her second novel, Excellent Women (1952), was well received, although her third, Jane and Prudence (1953), received more mixed reviews. Her fourth novel, Less than Angels (1955), showed poorer sales figures than the previous three, but it attracted enough attention to be Pym’s debut novel in the United States. A representative from Twentieth Century Fox came to England with an interest in securing the film rights, but this ultimately fell through.

Pym’s fifth novel, A Glass of Blessings (1958), was poorly reviewed, and Pym noted that of her first six novels, it was the worst reviewed. However the inclusion of sympathetic homosexual characters, in an era when homosexuality was largely frowned upon, attracted some interest in contemporary reviews. Pym’s sixth novel was No Fond Return of Love (1961), in which two female academic research assistants fall in love with the same man. All of Pym’s books up to this point had featured either the Anglican church community or anthropologists (or both). The book continued the trend of Pym’s novels receiving minimal critical attention. Nonetheless it was positively reviewed in Tatler, where Pym was praised for her “pussycat wit and profoundly unsoppy kindliness“; the reviewer concluded that “we may leave the deeply peculiar, face-saving, gently tormented English middle classes safely in her hands.”

In 1963, Pym submitted her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, to Cape. Editor Tom Maschler, who had recently joined the firm, rejected the manuscript, on the advice of two readers. Pym wrote back to protest that she was being unfairly treated, but was told that the novel did not show promise. She revised the manuscript and sent it to several other publishers, but with no success. Pym was advised that her style of writing was old-fashioned, and that the public were no longer interested in books about small-town spinsters and vicars; and moreover, that the minimum ‘economic figure’ for book sales was 4,000 copies, whereas several of her books from the 1950s had not achieved that number.

Pym was thus forced to consider finding a new authorial voice, but ultimately felt that she was too old to change to adapt to what publishers considered popular taste. As a result, she did not publish anything from 1962 until 1977. Regardless, she continued writing novels and short stories, and refining existing works, while she continued her professional career at the International African Institute. She never fully forgave Cape, or Tom Maschler; and together with her sister invented a dessert called “Maschler pudding”, which was a combination of lime jelly and milk.

Pym wrote The Sweet Dove Died in 1968 and An Academic Question in 1970. She submitted The Sweet Dove Died to several publishers, but it was again rejected. However, her earlier novels were reprinted during this era due to popular demand among local libraries. Pym wrote 27 short stories, of which only 6 were published during her lifetime. The remainder are stored in the Pym archives at the Bodleian Library.

In 1961, Pym began a correspondence with Philip Larkin, as he was preparing to write a review article of one of her novels. They continued to exchange letters for 19 years, right until her death, and met for the first time in April 1975, at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford. On January 21, 1977, the Times Literary Supplement ran a feature in which high-profile literary figures listed their most underrated and overrated British novelists of the century. Pym was chosen as the most underrated writer by both Larkin and Lord David Cecil; she was the only novelist to be selected by two contributors. On the strength of this review, literary interest in Pym was revived after 16 years. Several publishing companies expressed an interest, including her former publisher Cape, whom Pym rejected in favour of Macmillan, who in turn agreed to publish Quartet in Autumn the same year. Before Quartet in Autumn had been published, Macmillan also agreed to publish The Sweet Dove Died, which Pym had reworked since completing it ten years earlier. Cape reprinted her earlier novels, to which they still held the rights. Reviews of Quartet in Autumn were almost uniformly positive, and the novel was nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize; although the award ultimately went to Paul Scott’s Staying On.

The rediscovery also meant Pym was noticed in the United States. E.P. Dutton secured the rights to all of Pym’s existing novels, commencing with Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn, and published Pym’s entire oeuvre between 1978 and 1987. The discovery of Pym’s novels, combined with the narrative of her “comeback”, made her a minor success in the USA during this period. Following her return to the public eye, Pym was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1979, a year before her death.

Pym’s final novels have a more sombre, reflective tone than her earlier novels which were in the high comedy tradition. Crampton Hodnet (written in 1940), An Academic Question, and An Unsuitable Attachment were published, in conjunction with Pym’s literary executor, the novelist Hazel Holt, only after Pym’s 1980 death of breast cancer. Holt and Barbara Pym’s sister Hilary also published a collection of Pym’s early short stories and novellas, Civil to Strangers and Other Writings; as well as three additional volumes: A Very Private Eye, an “autobiography” comprising Pym’s edited diaries and letters; A Lot To Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym, a biography written by Holt, and A la Pym, a cookbook comprising recipes for dishes featured throughout Pym’s novels.

Read more about Barbara Pym on Wikipedia.


Major Awards and Honors

Royal Society of Literature
  • 1979: Fellow



Novels and Novellas
  • Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
  • Excellent Women (1952)
  • Jane and Prudence (1953)
  • Less than Angels (1955)
  • A Glass of Blessings (1958)
  • No Fond Return of Love (1961)
  • Quartet in Autumn (1977)
  • The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
  • A Few Green Leaves (1980)
  • An Unsuitable Attachment (1982)
    – Written 1963; published posthumously.
  • Crampton Hodnet (1985)
    – Completed ca. 1940; published posthumously.
  • An Academic Question (1986)
    – Written 1970–72; published posthumously.
  • Civil to Strangers (1987)
    – Written 1936; published posthumously.
Radio Play
  • Something to Remember (1950)
  • Barbara Pym: A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (1984)
    – Editors: Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym.
  • Hilary Pym and Honor Wyatt: A la Pym: The Barbara Pym Cookery Book (1988)
    – Recipes for the dishes appearing in Pym’s novels.
  • Yvonne Cocking: Barbara at the Bodleian: Revelations from the Pym Archives (2013)


A Selection of Quotes

Excellent Women

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury …’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”

“My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”

“I stretched out my hand towards the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comfortable bedside reading.”

“Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.”

“I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.”

“Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?”

“‘You could consider marrying an excellent woman?’ I asked in amazement. ‘But they are not for marrying.’
‘You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?’ he said, smiling.
That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.
‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.'”

Quartet in Autumn

“She had always been an unashamed reader of novels.”

An Unsuitable Attachment

“In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.”

“Whenever [Daisy] entered a café she always felt obliged to choose a table where a coloured man or woman was already sitting, so that they should not feel slighted in any way.  Looking around her, she saw a table for four with an African already at it.  Then she noticed that a clergyman, also bearing a tray, was making for the same table, but she managed to get there before him and put her bag down on the chair next to her to prevent him from sitting down.  One never knew – he might be a Roman Catholic or Oxford Group: it did not occur to her that he too might be trying to show the black man that there was no colour bar here.”

“‘[T]heir cats will be looked after too – one only hopes Daisy won’t put in more food for them than for the humans.’
Faustina looked up from her saucer, her dark face made all the more reproachful by its beard of milk.”

“‘Take an apostle spoon,’ Edwin Pettigrew had said, in that calm way that inspired so much confidence, making it all sound so easy.  And certainly one would have thought that a vicarage was the one place where one could be sure of finding plenty of apostle spoons.  Trying to hold Faustina firmly under one arm, Sophia rummaged in the silver drawer but could not find one.  Then she remembered the coffee spoons that had been a wedding present and were kept in a satin-lined case.  Surely those were apostle spoons?  They looked something like them, but then she realized that they were miniature replicas of the coronation anointing spoon – not so unsuitable, really, for with a jerk of her head Faustina sent the spoonful of liquid paraffin running down her face and brindled front so that she had, in a sense, anointed herself with oil.
Sophia let out a cry of exasperation as the cat jumped to the ground and stalked away.  Who would ever have thought that a miniature anointing spoon could have contained so much, she asked herself, for her hands and the front of her skirt seemed to be covered with liquid paraffin.”

Crampton Hodnet

“There are no sick people in North Oxford. They are either dead or alive. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all.”

“Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people.”

Jane and Prudence

“Once outside the magic circle the writers became their lonely selves, pondering on poems, observing their fellow men ruthlessly, putting people they knew into novels; no wonder they were without friends.”

“Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”

Find more quotes by Barbara Pym on Wikiquote and Goodreads.