Towards the end of Paula Byrne’s biography of the novelist Barbara Pym, we are told about a letter Pym received from the editor of the Church Times. In it, he expressed a wish to review Pym’s fiction, contrary to the usual policy of his newspaper. It was intended as a thank you for all the free advertising she had given them over the years.
Byrne’s readers, who will have just enjoyed a rollercoaster 600 pages of sex, Nazis, gay best friends, food, underwear (“trollies”), and more sex, may be taken aback. We have learned that Pym adopted a number of personae through her life – seductive “Sandra”, pseudo-Finnish “Pymska” – but the one who might have subscribed to the Church Times, and written about it, is not given a starring role. Marshalling diaries and unpublished novel drafts, Byrne lays bare many of the secrets of Pym’s heart. The question of faith, though, remains off-limits.
We are introduced to Pym in 1969, on a literary pilgrimage, touching Austen’s desk as believers might touch a holy relic. “I put my hand down,” wrote Pym, in her diary, “and bring it up covered in dust.” The comparison between the two writers was made by Pym’s first reviewers in the 1950s, and Pym actively encouraged it, using character names and near quotations and, in A Glass of Blessings, published in 1958, updating Austen’s Emma. As Byrne points out, both Pym and Austen remained unmarried, making homes with their sisters. Their careers follow similar trajectories; early encouragement from publishers being followed by inexplicable rejection, a period of long hopelessness and, at last, acclaim which came almost too late. Austen was dead at 41. Within little more than a year of Pym’s being shortlisted for the 1977 Booker prize she was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her. The frequent invocation of Austen is natural – not least because Byrne is an expert – but it is not really necessary.
Even without the Austen comparisons, Pym’s story is enthralling. It is rare for biography to read as compellingly as this one does. The pages race by. Unsuitable boyfriends are followed by even more unsuitable political flirtations. Pym juggles a boyfriend in the SS with another called Julian Amery, not only Anglo-Jewish, but the son of the Conservative politician Leo Amery, one of the chief critics of appeasement. She wears a swastika brooch in public and writes a novel about a Nazi sympathiser. She skips off to Poland to act as governess to a Jewish family, and has to race back to England when the Munich crisis comes to a head. During the war she writes a spy thriller (So Very Secret, unpublished until after her death), serves in the censorship department and, after yet another unsuccessful love affair, joins the Wrens. When her modest 1950s literary success evaporates and publishers reject her, she continues with her dull job at an academic journal. Then, when she has almost given up hope, comes fame, praise, everything she has longed for. There are cameos from other 20th-century writers; Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, a mini-skirted Margaret Drabble. Philip Larkin strikes up a correspondence and tries to bring Pym the recognition he thinks she deserves.
Byrne’s enthusiasm for Pym does occasionally carry her too far. Pym had a lifelong habit of following people; Byrne characterises only one example of this as “stalking”. More than once we are briefly tricked into confusing Pym’s life with those of other women who loved a fascist: another Barbara (Barbara Rucker, an American); Unity Mitford, Hitler’s favourite. For a few lines the two lives are merged in common youth and shared moral blindness, their stories run as one. We are made to feel for Pym, even in moments that she must, later, have wished to atone for. This is brave of Byrne. Not all readers will be able to imitate her.
It brings us back to the question of why Byrne avoids examining the faith which pervades Pym’s novels. True, it is parochial faith, stubborn rather than grand. We are not in the territory of Evelyn Waugh, nor the calm religious waters associated with Jane Austen. Pym’s believers worry for pages about incense and the temptations of Rome. Faith is unfashionable. Perhaps Byrne thinks it ought to remain private territory. This is
a minor cavil, however. Lovers of Pym, and there are many, will love Byrne’s book. Lovers of Byrne will love it too.
Helena Kelly is the author of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical and is working on a biography of Charles Dickens
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.