• Lelia

Barbara Pym's Full and Quiet Life

Updated: Mar 13


A Very Private Eye, Barbara Pym’s autobiography in diaries and letters, is lovely in just the way Barbara Pym’s novels are lovely: quiet lives lived with humorous self-awareness.


In the introduction, Pym’s sister Hilary and friend Hazel Holt write that they felt no biography was needed with this wealth of material written in Barbara’s own words. I loved this book, but would also love to read a biography. We have Barbara’s letters, yes, but what did her beau Henry Harvey write to her? What did her friend Phillip Larkin write to encourage her during the years her novels weren’t being published? Like most of us, Barbara writes about her heartbreak, loneliness, doubts and the small comforts and pleasures that support her through them. By the book's end, I felt she'd lived a sad life with only occasional small consolations. I missed the biographer’s ability to flesh out the picture, fill in details, provide others’ points of view. With only Pym's words to guide me, I started to see her in her self-described “role of indignant rejected middle-aged female author (a pretty formidable combination, don’t you think?)”


It was only in going through the book again that I could get a broader perspective and see how rich Pym's life was with experiences, relationships, heartbreak, joy, friendship, effort, perseverance and a determination to do what she enjoyed—write books—whether her efforts were rewarded or not. (“All I want now is peace to write my unpublished novels,” she wrote in 1966.)


In Quiet, Susan Cain writes, “our reverence for alpha status blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.” Like her many quiet, observant characters, Barbara Pym shows us much that is good, smart and wise and that a quiet life is not an empty life. As she writes in her diary during a period of communal housing in World War II: “At supper had to fight a little pang of jealousy when Honor talked about ringing him up [“him” being Honor’s ex-husband and Barbara’s recent lover (?*)]. Must go now and see if the boiler is in because it is our bath night. So there is romance and wild longing and death in life the days that are no more all in the chaos of the Palmers’ kitchen.”


*The question mark is due to my uncertainty about the word "lover." My impression is that Barbara and this man were lovers, but my stereotyped image of a never-married woman in 1943 includes virginity. This is where a biographer would be able to offer some clarity, but I suspect Barbara defied the stereotype because of several delightful lines in her diary:

  • In 1934, age 22, she writes, “I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to it being seen!”

  • As a Wren in 1944, she writes, “Last night Margaret and I went out with Peter (boredom is an exquisite experience, to be savoured and analysed like old brandy and sex.)”

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