First Morrissey, now Barbara Pym. They say you should never meet your heroes, perhaps you don’t want to know their life story either.
I have mixed feelings about biographies of artists at the best of times. I think they’re interesting when they help you to understand their work, or if they did something extraordinary apart from the work itself, but I’m not so bothered about the soap opera. I don’t think it should matter whether you like them or not, whether you would want to have a pint with them, whether they’re relatable. But what if you learn something that undermines your ability to enjoy their work?
The Adventures of Miss Pym is a chronological account and takes in all the key events of Barbara Pym’s life. We see her childhood with her parents and sister, Hilary, her time at Oxford, her war service, her work for the International African Institute on an academic journal on anthropology, the publication of her first six novels, and her wilderness years when she could no longer find a publisher. Finally, there is her return to success and even fame, thanks to the advocacy of her friend Philip Larkin who, along with Lord David Cecil, named her as an underrated author in a Times Literary Supplement feature.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is largely based on Pym’s archive, and in particular her diaries and notebooks. Pym wrote her diaries with a view to a future audience, and they are carefully curated (at times she tore out pages). This means the biography is giving us Pym as she wanted the world to see her. There is a particular focus on her affairs and infatuations, along with the minutae of daily life – clothes, food, furnishings, the details which make for fascinating observations in her novels.
Many of her key relationships were formed at Oxford, including with the author Robert Liddell – known to his friends as Jock. They exchanged letters throughout her life and he introduced her to other authors, as well as offering feedback on her manuscripts.
She met Liddell through Henry Harvey and they formed a triangle – Pym was in love with Harvey, Liddell was gay. She also remained in touch with Harvey for much of his life, even after he married. The pattern of her relationships was set at Oxford. Pym was attracted to unobtainable men, in all the classic ways – they were married, or gay, or living some distance away.
The most controversial element of Pym’s story is her involvement with a Nazi officer, Friedbert Glück. She travelled to Germany a number of times to visit him and learnt the language. This relationship spanned a number of years, but Byrne seems determined to give Pym the benefit of the doubt.
This was not a naïve young girl falling for a conscript. She was a highly educated woman in her twenties and he was a senior figure in the SS. They went on a “holiday” to Sudetenland in 1938, even as there was talk of its annexation by Germany. It was only under pressure from Hilary and Jock that she edited out the German sections in Some Tame Gazelle. At best she was wilfully blind.
There are some other disturbing aspects to Pym’s character. She let curiosity tip over into obsession. This began when she would follow men she found attractive at university. This could be perhaps understood as a sheltered young woman experiencing her first taste of freedom in a male-dominated environment. There’s a fine line between teenage crush and obsession. But it continued throughout her adult life.
When living in London some years later, she became fixated on her neighbour. She followed him around London, kept a log of his movements and even travelled to the West Country to see his mother’s home and his father’s grave. Dulcie and Viola do something similar in No Fond Return of Love. When I read it, their behaviour seemed odd, but when you hear of it in real life, it feels disturbing.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is entertaining enough, but I felt like I wanted more. We get only tantalising glimpses of Hilary Pym. The sisters lived together for most of their lives (moving in together after the end of Hilary’s short-lived wartime marriage) but we only get glimpses of her – her job at the BBC, her greater social ease than her sister, her advice on Pym’s books. The church played a big part in Pym’s life, but we don’t get a sense of what she believed. Why did the church matter to her? Was it, as it appears to be for her fictional characters, a social and cultural institution more than a matter of faith?
I would also have liked more about her creative process. We learn very little about how she worked, aside from her influences, and the fact that she wrote observations in her notebooks. Byrne maps the relationships between her fictional characters and her real friends, but that is not enough to explain the skill that went into constructing a narrative and giving them life.
I enjoyed the insights into social history – such as Pym’s war work, the privations of the post-war years (brilliantly captured in Excellent Women) and the difficulties of being a single woman earning a living before there was even a notional commitment to equal pay.
Pym was conservative in many ways, struggling during her war service to mix with people outside her class, but she also had a liberated attitude to sex. She also had a number of gay male friends at a time when homosexuality was still a crime.
The books are never quite as light and bright as a first impression might suggest. There are people who are unable to get what they want (or even know what that is), who self-sabotage, who are selfish and manipulative, all encased in the respectable veneer of middle-class life. But there’s a warmth and lightness to them that feels harder to embrace knowing about the Nazi thing and the stalker thing.
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is a very readable book with short chapters (I was a bit anxious about the whimsical chapter titles but they didn’t reflect the tone of the book). It left me fascinated and frustrated in equal measure, and with some trepidation about whether having read it will affect my enjoyment of Pym’s fiction.