I hold John Self over at Asylum responsible yet again.
I have finally picked up and read a book by Barbara Pym.
Fancy having to own up that I hadn't read any.
Usual story, books by and about gathered on the shelf and then I see that John Self has read Quartet in Autumn and I think, well that can't be right when here's me never read a single one.
I love a bit of middlebrow but I'll also own up that I often get weary of it, finding it is the one single genre I can easily overdose on, and then I skirt around the middlebrow corner of my library for months afterwards.
I was drawn back to the shelves having promised to loan my priceless copy of Miss Buncle's Book by D.E.Stevenson to Mary Cavanagh. I actually think D.E.Stevenson doesn't even make it into the ranks of middlebrow but I especially adore Miss Buncle who travelled recorded delivery to Mary's to ensure safe arrival. Even the old Fontana paperbacks now fetch £30, that's how precious she is.
What's all the fuss about you might ask?
Here are my 2007 thoughts on D.E.Stevenson
D.E.Stevenson's fiction has dated of course but it's the dating that provides so much pleasure for me because they provide a real and unassuming window on the social realities of the era and likewise Barbara Pym, though somehow her writing in Quartet for Autumn seems timeless.
Sadly 1970's office workers Marcia, Lettie, Norman and Edwin have little choice beyond necessity and habit; same commute, same office, same mundane work but it's all been their 'everything'. So much their 'everything' that no one can really identify their role in the company and replacements will be wholly unnecessary as they approach retirement. The sense of barely-concealed grief and loss is palpable as Marcia trudges to her house and Lettie to her bedsit clutching their gifts, they don't even have friendship let alone plans or a life to look forward to.
My first impressions of Barbara Pym's writing are dangerously good, I'm with Lord David Cecil on this one
'unpretentious, subtle, accomplished'
and Philip Larkin
'Underrated...an unrivalled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England. She has a unique eye and ear for the poignancies and comedies of everyday life.'
and all suggesting to me a writer who engages so closely with the minutiae of her characters lives that I am given translucent studies of people I feel I know.
Mrs Pope, Lettie's landlady has rules,
'one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning.'
Tell me no more because I have Mrs Pope cast quite perfectly in my mind.
I've since discovered a book on my shelves published in 1982, Twentieth Century Women Novelists edited by Thomas Staley and a fascinating essay entitled Living and Loving in the Novels of Barbara Pym by Barbara Brothers which suggests that Pym chides novelists in Quartet in Autumn for not telling the truth about women's lives and indeed she does. Letty has given up reading novels because they don't reflect her life as an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman, to read what is true she has turned to biographies. I also warm to Barbara Brother's idea that Barbara Pym is subversive in her use of 'gentle ironies' and her focus on the mundaneness of life and her character's self-deceptions and self-pretensions alongside an insistence that we accept them on their own terms. That much and more is evident in my first read but even more remarkable, these are women's lives in the 1970's.
The final remnants of that wartime dearth of marriageable men clearly identified in Virginia Nicolson's Singled Out ?
Women who the feminist moment has passed by?
So what's the danger in all this you might well ask?
Well it's a huge and ever-present temptation to feast, I have shelves full of Barbara Pym, like a pantry stuffed with rich dark chocolate, I shall gorge and be sick before I know it.
Quick, tell me which one to read next all you Pymites out there.