A Nice Hobby, Like Knitting: On Barbara Pym

Now recognized as a master for her wry, comic novels of spinsters and clergymen, Barbara Pym was unpublished until the very end of her life.

A Nice Hobby, Like Knitting: On Barbara Pym

Photo by Mayotte Magnus (c) The Barbara Pym Society

I BECAME INTERESTED in British author Barbara Pym after the author Michelle Huneven told me about a sock-darning scene in Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, which, Huneven claimed, was “sexier than most explicit sex scenes.” The heroine, Belinda, has been in love with the archdeacon since college, but he married a woman with better connections. Belinda lives with her sister near his church, and when his wife goes out of town, the archdeacon seeks out their company. Noticing a hole in his sock, Belinda offers to darn it, and does so while the Archdeacon is still wearing it — his foot on her lap. At one point, she pricks him — he almost loses his temper — but it’s the most intimate she’s ever been with him, and afterwards, it takes her a while to cool down.

I was skeptical. But after reading Pym’s novels, I now know that sock darning (and polishing brass and filling hot water bottles and drinking tea) can indeed be very sexy, and that the darning and gifting of socks in Pym’s world is loaded with unspoken meaning and unreciprocated desire.

Love — specifically unrequited love — and women’s struggles to connect with men are the forces that propel Pym’s novels. Men have the power: sexually, monetarily, societally, and ecclesiastically. But Pym’s heroines are clever manipulators of the more oblivious sex and drive the slower-witted males to their fates. Resigned to doing the unappreciated domestic tasks, the women keep men fed, do their busywork, nurture and encourage them; but women also make life decisions for their male counterparts from behind the scenes.

The “excellent women,” in Pym’s so-named novel, while largely invisible and ignored by society, are the heroines — the ones who keep the churches and homes in running order — and men unwittingly revolve around them. At times, men seem like entertainment to keep the women occupied. Long before the Bechdel Test existed, Pym noted: “Didn’t they say that Jane Austen never has two men talking alone together in her novels? I’m afraid I have been bolder than that.” Indeed, Pym’s men are important only in their relation to her heroines — they’re peripheral. In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observes, “It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex.”

But Pym’s women usually remain unsatisfied — at least by their men. They dote on them, and the men neglect them and dote on themselves; rarely are the relationships equal or reciprocal. Yet one gets the impression that Pym and her characters love men. (“Women,” Pym once warned, “have a great (and perhaps tedious) capacity for devotion. Men ought to be wary of awakening it.”

Though marriage plots occupy Pym’s novels, a marriage proposal is not a happy ending (while saying “no” might provide relief), nor is the wedded state one of bliss and fulfillment. “But wasn’t that what so many marriages were — finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him?” Jane Clevelend asks in Jane and Prudence.

If a betrothal happens, it does so off the page, mentioned like a gossipy aside in another novel. For instance, the reader learns two novels later, in Less Than Angels, that narrator Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women did indeed marry Everard Bone, and that she is having subsequent adventures in Africa. Esther Clovis, secretary for an anthropological research center in Less Than Angels, muses on Everard’s fate, revealing how people (though not the reader) underestimate Mildred: “Everard had married a rather dull woman who was nevertheless a great help to him in his work; as a clergyman’s daughter she naturally got on very well with the missionaries they were meeting now that they were in Africa again.”

Flirtations and romantic obsessions — relationships at the margins — are more interesting to Pym. Friendships and alliances between women, or between women and gay men (more on that later) are the sources of sustenance to those engaged in these marginal relationships.

Pym wasn’t a feminist (though she wasn’t against feminism). Her novels, however astutely they characterize women’s subservience, are not about injustice or rebellion. Pym liked housework and disparaged aggressive sexuality in women (she loathed Mae West and Marlene Dietrich). “On TV,” she notes in 1956, “I thought that women have never been more terrifying than they are now — the curled head (‘Italian Style’), the paint and jewelry, the exposed bosom — no wonder men turn to other men sometimes.” Although Pym clearly did not understand homosexuality as we do today, she was not homophobic; in fact, her routine, matter of fact depictions of gay men was radical in the 1950s.

Pym was an autobiographical writer and even a prophetic one: Some Tame Gazelle, her “novel of real people,” which she began when she was 22 years old in 1934 and published in 1950 when she was 37, was originally a comedic imagining of her and her sister’s future lives as spinsters. Pym’s first tormenting love-obsession, Henry Harvey (a life-long friend, despite their rocky young romance) was the model for her sock-darned Archdeacon. In fact, Pym and her sister Hilary followed Some Tame Gazelle’s example into the future: like the sisters Belinda and Harriet, they indeed lived happily together in spinsterhood from 1938 to 1980, and they joked that Pym made “things happen by writing about them.”

Indeed, from Pym’s notebooks, letters, and diaries, compiled in A Very Private Eye by longtime friend, coworker, and literary executor, Hazel Holt, along with Hilary, it seems that Pym — who at times refers to herself in third person as if she were one of her own characters — chose the more voyeuristic path of spinsterhood (she turned down marriage proposals), whereby she could mine her own tragic love life (invariably involving unavailable men) free from any distracting spouse or offspring.

Pym asks in a note to herself after a breakup:

What is the heart?

A damp cave with things growing in it, mysterious secret plants of love or whatever you like. Or a dusty lumber room full of junk. Or a neat orderly place like a desk with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Something might be starting now that would linger on through many years — dying sometimes and then coming back again, like a twinge of rheumatism in the winter, so that you suddenly felt it in your knee when you were nearing the top of a long flight of stairs.

A Great Love that was unrequited might well be like that.

Pym used her diary observations for her novels, as she did with the above entry in Jane and Prudence. Prudence recalls how a surge of affection for her boss came to her, “And as there had been at that time a temporary emptiness in her heart she had let it rush in, and now here it was with her always, a constant companion or a pain like a rheumatic twinge in the knee when one neared the end of a long flight of stairs."

Rather than marital commitment, Pym chose a quiet life where she could indulge her interest in people. In No Fond Return of Love, the heroine Dulcie Mainwaring states: “It seemed […] so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people — to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or play.”

Pym and her sister Hilary were also prone to choosing men to spy on and follow, creating fantasy worlds about them. No Fond Return of Love is Pym’s paean to their stalking methods, which were a form of play to them, not so dissimilar to the way they invented elaborate stories for their cats (Tom Boilkin, their black and white cat, was the President of the Young Neuters Club).

“I honestly don’t believe,” Pym wrote in a letter, “I can be happy unless I’m writing.” Some Tame Gazelle was followed by five remarkable novels: Excellent Women (Cape, 1952), Jane and Prudence (Cape, 1953), Less Than Angeles (Cape, 1955), A Glass of Blessings (Cape, 1958), and No Fond Return of Love (Cape, 1961). All around 200 to 300 pages, these novels are polished, ironic, self-contained gems. They thrive on an appreciation for the quietly absurd. Pym’s wry style and subject are mutually suited: her sentences aren’t flamboyant or poetic, but rather — like her heroines — they’re clear and articulate, intent on communicating and just slightly bent. Here’s a young man of ambiguous sexuality who has just lost his virginity with a woman:

James hardly knew whether his visit to Phoebe had been a success or not. Their awkward love-making in the cottage bedroom seemed very far removed from the world of Humphrey and Leonora, and while he was not particularly anxious to repeat the experience he liked to think that he could if he wanted to.

Pym’s characters quote from major English poets as much as they drink tea and Ovaltine. All her novels end on a hopeful note, more or less, such as No Fond Return of Love, when Senhor Macbride-Pereira, a side character and frequent witness to love-shenanigans, is not quick enough to observe from his window what must have been the climactic meeting between the principals, Dulcie and Aylwin: “He took a mauve sugared almond out of a bag and sucked it thoughtfully, wondering what, if anything, he had missed.” Pym uses revolving points of view — except for the first person narratives of Excellent Women (Mildred Lathbury) and A Glass of Blessings (Wilmet Forsyth) — and her heroines (like Pym) are modest, unassuming, decent, and boundlessly curious. They are apt to reappear in Pym’s other novels — mentioned and noticed in passing — so that they remain alive, with the reader updated about their lives in a peripheral manner (much as in real life).

Pym is most often compared to Jane Austen, whom she admired and studied for technique. Like Austen, she excels at behind-the-scenes hints and maneuverings and loosely concealed, burgeoning love stories; for the reader, her endings can feel both surprising and destined.

Despite moderate sales and critical acclaim, at a certain point, publishers rejected Pym, and she was unpublished from 1961 to 1977. She was considered out of step with the new times. In her notes, she laments her inability to modify her particular style of observation (“The new Archbishop of Canterbury has a lovely lap for a cat.”).

In the restaurant all those clergymen help themselves from the cold table, it seems endlessly,” she writes. Then admonishes: “But you mustn’t notice things like that if you’re going to be a novelist […] The posters on Oxford Circus Station advertising Confidential Pregnancy Tests would be more suitable.

In a letter to Philip Larkin, Pym despairs over her rejections and contends: “But I mustn’t bore you with all this and apologize for having written this much in the role of indignant rejected middle-aged female author (a pretty formidable combination, don’t you think?).”

Pym continued to write novels during these sixteen years — although perhaps not as many as she might have if she weren’t working against the misapprobation of publishers — and much has been made of her cheerful fortitude. “Still,” she writes of popular authors of the day, “what does it matter, really, such writers are caviar to the general, are they not, and fame is dust and ashes anyhow.”

Her notebooks, letters, and diaries in A Very Private Eye reveal how much she struggled. Pym’s genius was overlooked by a male industry; like Pym herself — her books aren’t loud or ego-driven. In a letter, she observes, “ — why is it that men find my books so sad? Women don’t particularly. Perhaps they (men) have a slight guilt feeling that this is what they do to us, and yet it really isn’t as bad as all that.”

The word “cosy” and variations of it appear so frequently in Pym’s novels, letters, and notes, I came to think of it as Pym’s word. During the years of rejection, she tried to extract any impression of cosiness. On rewriting, she alerts Larkin, “I have cut out a lot of the characters, ruthlessly suppressed (or tried to) all ‘cosiness’ and am now struggling...” Then by belittling her work — “Still I suppose it’s a nice hobby for me, like knitting.” — she reveals her anger alongside her effort to manage her expectations.

In 1977 The Times Literary Supplement published a list chosen by eminent literary figures of the most under-rated writers of the century, and Pym was the only living writer to be named by two people: her longtime friend and literary champion Philip Larkin, and Lord David Cecil, a prominent biographer and literary critic. MacMillan published Quartet in Autumn that same year (which went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and then The Sweet Dove Died in 1978. Her earlier novels also came back into print.

Pym experienced fame and recognition; a little over three years later in 1981, she died from metastasized breast cancer.

Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died have a solemnity unlike her earlier works. Of the latter, Pym wrote: “The friend who has read this thinks it almost a sinister and unpleasant book, which may be all to the good. I didn’t try to make it so, but tended to leave out boring cosiness and concentrate on the darker side.” Indeed, Pym’s signature irony and humor are muted in both of the later books; Quartet in Autumn is a far different novel than her first; a closely-observed story of four older people whose prickly idiosyncracies condemn them to loneliness, it’s not as wry or sneakily hilarious as its predecessors, so much so, it’s as if a different author had written it.

While I appreciate these later works, I do wonder what might Pym have created had she been properly recognized all along. What delights did we miss?

Pym worked as an editor for nearly thirty years for the International African Institute in London, and she appropriated both subject matter (she wrote a novel about anthropologists, and they wander freely in her other books) and an anthropologist-like impartiality in her narratives. The terminology of the field provided her with comic material, and she utilized African anthropology to highlight the comparable ceremonies and rites of the British. In Less Than Angels, Tom Mallow ruminates about his upper class roots:

It was odd to think that he himself had once been on the threshold of that kind of life and he had thrown it all away, as it were, to go out to Africa and study the ways of the so-called primitive tribe. For really, when one came to consider it, what could be more primitive than the rigid ceremonial of launching a debutante on the marriage market?

In Jane and Prudence, Jane Clevelend observes:

But then, she thought, weren’t we all, even the most intelligent of us, like children fearing to go into the dark, no better than primitive peoples with their ancestor cults, the way we went to the cemetery on a Sunday afternoon, bearing bunches of flowers.

Anthropology is vital to Excellent Women, Less Than Angels (the most anthropological of all her novels), An Unsuitable Attachment, and A Few Green Leaves. An anthropologist (and many pot shards) also appears in A Glass of Blessings.

“Obviously,” Pym states, “a novelist should cross question people, like an anthropologist in the field […] I love finding out things about people in my own way.”

Pym could be describing her own work in this later statement:

For many years I worked with anthropologists, when I had the job of preparing their research for publication, and I occasionally regretted that more of them did not turn their undoubted talents to the writing of fiction. Their work often showed many of the qualities that make a novelist — accurate observation, detachment, even sympathy. It only needed a little more imagination, plus the leavening of irony and humor, to turn their accounts into novels.

The ecclesiastical is even more central to Pym’s novels than anthropology. Pym was an avid churchgoer, an Anglican who preferred the high church, just below Roman Catholicism. But the comedic details never escaped her: “The congregation shifted awkwardly in their seats,” Belinda observes in Some Tame Gazelle. “It was uncomfortable to be reminded that the Judgment Day might be tomorrow.” Pym was not interested in portraying the more private realm of spiritual growth and revelation, let alone mysticism, which were important to her, and which therefore escaped her comedic detachment. Clergymen, however, were fair game, and though usually sincere, they’re often vain and ineffectual. Pym’s “excellent women” fawn over clergymen and find them benign objects of desire: innocuous, gentle, and most of all (especially if they’re celibate) safely off-limits.

Pym felt an affinity for gay men in her personal life, and sometimes she created gay personalities in straight drag, like Rocky Napier in Excellent Women. When homosexuality was her subject (an unusual choice at that time), she treated it with her usual tolerant impartiality and astuteness as just another observation with comedic dimensions; however understated her approach, this was really quite radical for the 1950s. Lesbian relationships don’t exist in her books, but women pair off as friends and housemates, and women’s friendships and relationships are Pym’s narrative backbones. Sexual orientation was not a moral question for Pym, but a basic human fact — and therefore useful for comedic interest and narrative possibilities.

Wilmet Forsyth seems to be the only one in A Glass of Blessings who doesn’t know that the man she’s attempting to seduce, Piers Longridge, is homosexual. James, in The Sweet Dove Died, swings between a male lover and a female one, but he finds his most intense companionship with the older, asexual Leonora. Then there’s the gourmet cook at the vicarage of St. Luke’s, Wilfred J. Bason (Wilf), in A Glass of Blessings, who loves beautiful things and nicks a Fabergé egg from Father Thames to carry around in his pocket. Thames doesn’t mind: Wilf is an excellent cook. “Do you know,” Thames tells Wilmet, lowering his tone, “he has promised us a coq au vin?”

Despite our great gaps of understanding, especially those between women and men; despite our vanities and egos, loving someone is a worthwhile effort, Pym’s novels assert. “We really ought to love one another,” Belinda thinks in Some Tame Gazelle, “it was a pity it was often so difficult.” Pym’s own faith, generosity of spirit, and humility shine throughout her books, and her ability to depict our foibles with a comedic affection and acceptance remains unparalleled.

In 1979, sick with cancer, Pym writes, “A fine Easter, sunshine and things burgeoning. I live still!” A few days letter, she tells Larkin in a letter: “I wish all neglected novelists could have the good friends and luck that I’ve had.”


Victoria Patterson’s third novel, The Little Brother, will be published in August.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Patterson is the author of Drift, a book of stories, and three novels: This Vacant Paradise, The Peerless Four, and The Little Brother. Her second collection of stories, The Secret Habit of Sorrow, published July 2018.


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