Pym, Woolf and the Small Things in Life
Updated: Jul 7
“The position of unmarried women—unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the reader of modern fiction. The beginning of a novel?”
So wrote Barbara Pym in her diary on June 19, 1972. (I would have been 1 month and 1 day old:)
Of course, Barbara Pym was interested in the lives of unmarried women. And she had the audacity to put them center stage in many of her novels, almost as if responding to Virginia Woolf’s frustration in "A Room of One's Own" that after “the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children set to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie. All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded.”
What’s lovely is that Pym didn’t try to fill this gap by placing her female protagonists in the midst of drama and excitement. Their lives are quiet. There’s an air of everyday normalcy to her books that I find reassuring.
In Pym, married women’s lives are not more exciting than those of their unmarried sisters. Harry, one of the husbands in "A Glass of Blessings," is described as “one of those non-intellectual men who are often more comforting to women than the exciting but tortured intellectuals.* He might not have any very interesting conversation for his wife at the end of the day, might indeed quite easily drop off to sleep after dinner, but he was strong and reliable, assuming that he would be the breadwinner and that his wife would of course vote the same way he did.”
You can imagine, then, that married women don’t radiate fulfillment through marriage. Their lives, like the lives of all of Barbara Pym’s protagonists, are filled with the small things in life. Molly Young writes in her column Read Like the Wind, of the “semi-comic mundanity that appears in Barbara Pym novels. Or, in some cases, makes up the entirety of a Barbara Pym novel.”
Maybe mundanity is a hallmark of “women’s fiction” and a reason why it was dismissed as insignificant for decades.** Virginia Woolf, discussing the work of women writers in “A Room of One’s Own,” writes, “It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all.”
And that’s what Barbara Pym celebrates — the small things that aren’t that small after all. As Father Ransome, in “A Glass of Blessings” says,
“... but it’s the trivial things that matter, isn’t it?”
Yet Pym also doesn’t sentimentalize the truth. Her characters are a bit bored. I can imagine certain readers chafing at the tedium, as her characters indeed do at times. Wilmet in “A Glass of Blessings,” thinks to herself:
“April was balmy and delicious, and cruel in the way the poet did mean, mingling memory and desire. The memory was of other springs, the desire unformulated, unrecognized almost, pushed away because there seemed to be no place for it in the life I had chosen for myself.”
*The tortured intellectual could almost be a reference to Ted Hughes, except that Pym published A Glass of Blessings in 1958. Later in 1977, Pym wrote in her diary, “I am reading Sylvia Plath’s letters. All these years I seem to have misjudged her—the kind of person she seems to have been—dates with Amherst boys and at Cambridge that anthropological psychologist Mallory Wober. And liking clothes and hair-dos. Then alone in that bitter Winter in 1962-3 in a house in Fitzroy Rd—where Yeats lived—with two children, starting to write at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning—deserted by Ted Hughes—that was how it was.”
** I don't have any facts to back this statement up. I read in someone's memoir - maybe Claire Tomalin's "A Life of My Own: A Memoir" - that women's writing wasn't taken seriously in the 50s and 60s.