“Of course it's alright for librarians to smell of drink.”
Reading Barbara Pym
I’m in a goodreads group dedicated to “forgotten” authors and literature. It’s a refreshing counter to the publishing industry’s marketing campaigns that make it seem like whatever book is the newest is the best and thus you need to buy it right away. Forgotten books also lack a long wait time at the library, which is becoming more of an issue as publishers do things such as embargo their books, meaning that they don’t allow libraries to get them until months after they are published or only get them in limited numbers. I’ve become so pissed about this that I’ve been deliberately avoiding certain publishers so that they don’t profit off of this capitalist chicanery.
The goodreads group decided that we would read the works of Barbara Pym for September. Not sure how we decided on that since none of us knew who she was. A quick google told me that she was a 1950s British romance author who is often compared to Jane Austen. I started the book Jane and Prudence with no other knowledge. It was hard to get into at first because it was so very British. What’s the difference between a vicar and curate? What does it mean to say that a church is “too High”? If someone arrives for tea at 5 o’clock, are they incredibly rude because it’s so late? I also felt a twinge of… guilt? The book is so light and airy and apolitical in the way you can only be if you are part of the British empire and have the cognitive dissonance required to continue your worldwide colonialism. In 2019, we’re about one presidential decree from having actual Hunger Games. It seems wrong to read such a light, archaic book.
Once I got over all that though--still unclear about what a curate is but not really caring--I fell in love with Jane and Prudence. The genre could be described as a comedic novel about rural church life. What makes it special is that Jane and Prudence are both very hetero but spend the entire book absolutely trashing the men whom they are un-regrettably attracted to. The book is just one zinger after another.
He seemed a nice young man, but that was only the least one could say. Was it also the most?
But of course, she remembered, that was why women were so wonderful; it was their love and imagination that transformed these unremarkable beings. For most men, when one came to think of it, were undistinguished to look at, if not positively ugly.
I decided to work through the rest of Pym’s books, but so far the only other one I’ve read is her first book, Some Tame Gazelle. She wrote it when she was in college (but published it later) and it’s a work of erotic friend fiction. She wrote about what she imagined her and her friends’ lives being like once they were middle-aged, with all her friends renamed to give her the slightest bit of deniability. She gets to write about the people who wronged her growing up to be ugly and dumb, and she can create and reject marriage proposals from whomever she likes. It’s as snarky as Jane and Prudence, so it’s basically a book-long roast of her friends.
I also like the idea that Barbara Pym was a proto-Facebook stalker. Her sister says that she was a good novelist because she was so very interested in ordinary people. She would keep a little notebook and write down things she saw people doing. When she met someone new, she would go to the Bodleian library at Oxford and look them up in the big Who’s Who book there. England was a small enough and self-important enough place that they maintained books listing all the famous family members and connections of rich kids. She also sometimes went as far as following people, which seems a bit extreme, but I’m sure if she had access to social media she would settle for that.
Pym is often the epitome of the naive white woman, unfortunately. For instance, one time in college (pre-WWII), she got caught up in singing Deutschland, Deutschland über alles with some attractive future-Nazis and doesn’t realize why everyone is so concerned for her. (She gets caught up in a lot of things just because there were attractive men involved.) After college, she worked at an institute for British studies in Africa. You can imagine what that is like, and when she uses her job to inspire characters in her book, it is extremely cringeworthy. At least she mocks the racist missionaries the way she mocks everyone else.
I haven’t read any of her later more somber books yet, or Excellent Women, which is the one usually recommended as her best. I am excited that I have more to look forward to.
One last thing--for some reason, she is quite frequently pictured holding cats. But not in a way that any cat has ever wanted to be held:
This one is not actually her, but her friend who maintained her work after she was gone. She might be responsible for selecting all the photos of pissed off cats. I love her whole style.