Convert Me :)

TalkBarbara Pym

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Convert Me :)

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Oct 9, 2009, 10:47 am

Hello Pym fans! digifish invited me to this group by accident, but I'm glad she did because I need to know why I should enjoy Barbare Pym as you all do. I have heard her compared to Jane Austen (in fact, that's how I found her; someone on LT was recommending books to read after Austen's, and Pym's name came up with high praise). I love Jane Austen dearly, but couldn't see how Pym was comparable.

I started A Few Green Leaves awhile back and didn't like it very much. My review (which I warn you is not gentle) is here if you want to see my specific objections:

I am willing to give Pym another try. Perhaps I just started with the wrong book? Perhaps I didn't give A Few Green Leaves enough time to get going? Convert me and I will try again! What is it that you love about Pym's work?

Oct 9, 2009, 10:26 pm

I too was confused when I heard Pym compared to Jane Austen. I've only read one Pym book, No Fond Return of Love, and I could not see it (the comparison)! Then I heard a discussion about Barbara Pym on the internet, and the point was made that both Austen and Pym wrote about what they knew, and it was a very narrow frame of reference. Austen's books are all the same type of people, which Jane grew up around, and she used her books to find the humor and hypocrisy that existed. Pym's books seem to be about the same kind of people as well, the kind she was familiar with, middle aged spinster women. She uses her books to find the humor and expose what is wrong with the world that those women live in.

When I started No Fond Return of Love, I was not immediately hooked. I didn't much like the characters at first either. But by the middle I was beginning to be quietly hooked. About 3/4 of the way through the main character did something courageous that changed her life, and I cheered for her. Even she was surprised at herself. Well, that did it. I was a Pym convert. I called her quietly gripping in my review. You don't realize you are being hooked until she's got you.

I'm not sure if you will get to like her or not, but she's worth another try. I've heard you have to be in the proper mood for Pym, like a somber one, or perhaps on a cold rainy day while you are inside with a cup of tea...

Oct 10, 2009, 8:10 am

Odd idea for a thread. Green Leaves was Pym's last book. Perhaps you are out of sympathy with her repressed, middle-aged characters.

Oct 10, 2009, 10:23 am

pamelad, I'm sorry if my topic/review offended you. It wasn't my intent. I really do want to find out if I gave Pym the short shrift, and try her again. Please accept my apologies if this is a misstep.

amwmsw, thank you for your thoughts. Maybe I started with the wrong book. Would you say No Fond Return of Love is better for a new reader than A Few Green Leaves?

Oct 10, 2009, 11:03 am

I've always thought the comparison to Jane Austen is a little unfair to both authors - they're really very different. But I think they probably do appeal to a lot of the same readers.

Yes, I think you likely just started with the wrong book. Even among Pym fans, I've noticed that A Few Green Leaves isn't one of the most popular of her novels (though it's one of my faves). I would recommend starting with one of the early novels - probably Some Tame Gazelle. It has much more of her humor and her wonderfully eccentric characters. I think that, in tone, it's almost the exact opposite of A Few Green Leaves. And I've always found "Gazelle" interesting because it's about mostly middle-aged characters, although she wrote it when she was very young.

Oct 10, 2009, 5:53 pm

Not offended. Just an unfortunate title. I hope you find a Pym you like. Perhaps Excellent Women?

Oct 10, 2009, 7:56 pm

Wisewoman, I recommend trying Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence. I haven't read A Few Green Leaves yet but imagine it is similar to Quartet in Autumn, i.e. slightly more sombre and circumspect.

Oct 10, 2009, 9:47 pm

Wisewoman, I haven't read many Pym books myself - I already know I love her books, so I'm trying to spread them out and savor them instead of reading them all too fast! I heard on another thread that No Fond Return of Love is a big favorite among many of Pym's fans.
But I do think you should read all the way to the end before forming a solid opinion - the characters develop nicely by then.
I've heard others say that Quartet in Autumn was their favorite as well, but that it is more sad than her other writings.
I hope you can find one that you enjoy! She is very popular and her books are hard to find in the second hand stores - that's one way I can pick out a good author, lol...(like Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh)
Happy reading,

Oct 16, 2009, 4:57 pm

When Barbara Pym was first recommended to me, it was also recommended that I read her books in the order written. I don't know if that would help you any; just sayin'.

Edited: Oct 17, 2009, 9:04 am

I have read five Pym novels and A Few Green Leaves was my least favourite. I did enjoy it but if it had been my first Pym, then I think I might have wondered what all the fuss was about. The thing that "converted" me was listening to a serialisation of Jane and Prudence. I started off thinking "hmm, vicars, cups of tea, spinsters, this is all going to be very sedate" and then she came out with some wicked comment about Fabian and I was hooked! I went onto read Excellent Women which has my favourite heroine ever and lots more ironic touches. I think it may be those very subtle ironic digs amongst a domestic setting which led to the Austen comparisons.

Edited to say: I recommend reading Excellent Women and if you're still not converted you never will be!

Jan 30, 2010, 1:49 am

Susan Hill from Howards end is on the landing writing about Pym

"Pym's world of stuttering curates, wistful spinsters and awkward bachelors, of North Oxford and small county parishes, is superficially bland and narrow. What makes it of greater importance is her trenchant eye, her detached and sometimes mordant vision of these well-meaning, fumbling people at odds with so much of life. She is good on petty jealousy, hidden sorrow, unvoiced love, genteel regret, middleclass poverty. And on curates."

Jan 30, 2010, 6:10 pm

>11 errata:

Hmmm, what does she mean by that? What does she really mean? I never thought Pym's world bland and narrow at all. And I really can't imagine a less apt description of her vision than "trenchant." That suits Benson, or even Rose Macaulay, more nearly than it does Barbara Pym.

Jan 31, 2010, 2:25 am

Wisewoman, I have to agree with others that A Few Green Leaves is not so characteristic of what is beloved in Pym as other works, and an unfortunate place to start. I preferred Quartet in Autumn to it, but if I had to choose, would definitely recommend Excellent Women, The Sweet Dove Dies, or Jane and Prudence as beginning-points. Less Than Angels is also good. Pym is wry, witty, dry, and apt. She's free of illusions, yet interested in her characters, and the outcome of their lives.

My cat is making it impossible to type, or I'd try to express it better! Really, she's very engaging.

Feb 1, 2010, 8:21 am

Thanks everyone, so much, for your thoughts. I haven't disappeared! I do have a copy of Excellent Women and I will put it on my list to read this year. I will be sure to come back and let you all know what I think. Thank you again :-)

Apr 3, 2010, 7:36 pm

I am meaning to buy and read a Barbara Pym novel, and I see here that Excellent Women may be the right one to read first. Thanks for your insights, everyone.

Apr 24, 2010, 9:59 am

I am definetely a member of the Barbara Pym fan club. I think some of the scenes in her books like the garden scene in Some Tame Gazelle, rank as high comedy. I have read reviews stating that Pym is the one of the most underrated novelists. Austin however, I suppose this is blasphemy, is possibly one of the most overrated. But it is true, we all love a good romance novel and she is very good at them. I prefer my characters with real lives and at least one foot in reality. I'll take tea with that excellent Mildred any day.

Apr 30, 2010, 7:47 pm

This quote appeared on Virago Modern Classics post, thought it might do here as well,

"I can’t remember whether you said you liked Barbara Pym,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to an old school friend around 1980, ‘but am sending Quartet in Autumn in case you haven’t got it, otherwise it can go to the Mothers’ Union Xmas sale. I do like her very much, the incidents look so trivial that there’s nothing in them and then you suddenly realise how much she’s said."

Apr 30, 2010, 9:59 pm

>17 errata:

I suppose it's to be expected in the days of megahits like The DaVinci Code and Stephen King's novels (which I must admit are very well-written), that Pym's stories seem 'Trivial," but aren't events and decisions that shape the lives of real (or apparently real) people truly significant, and all the sturm and drang and fantasy stories the true trivialities?

May 3, 2010, 12:26 pm

"you suddenly realize how much she's said" - I love that! Thanks for posting.

May 13, 2010, 5:11 pm

I certainly think A Few Green Leaves was an unfortunate place to start because it's probably the weakest of her books, written soon before she died and lacking most of her sparkle. An Academic Question is another one to leave until you are really hooked, because it tries to be 'with it' but fails. The best of Pym's books are those written early in her career such as Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. I personally have a soft spot for Crampton Hodnet, written very early but laid aside, as the Pymish phrase goes and published posthumously. It wonderfully evokes the pre-war atmosphere of North Oxford (or what I imagine that to be, I'm too young myself!), and is full of sly but wise observations on the human condition.
Austen she isn't. Read her for herself. Also, try and read A Very Private Eye, the collection of her letters and diaries which is so illuminating on how a writer sources her material and transmutes it.

Jun 2, 2010, 9:26 pm

Once again this quote comes from the Virago Modern Classics thread (thanks bleuroses)

What did Barbara Pym look like? Here is how the daughter of two of her friends remembers her:

"She was tall, like at least one of her heroines - Mildred, in Excellent Women - with mid-brown hair and bright, noticing eyes. I think she had a tendency to lean forward slightly from the waist, perhaps because she was tall, perhaps because she spent so much of her time at a desk either at work or while writing. Her figure I remember as trim, neither thin or fat. Cardigans, blouses and skirts are what I recall her wearing: not particularly fashionable but with a quiet, neat elegance. 'Well turned out' is perhaps the most appropriate phrase. What I particularly remember about Barbara was an air of watchfulness as if behind that quiet, unobtrusive facade a formidable intelligence was observing, taking notes, analysing, distilling. This was what set Barbara apart from my parents' other friends and made her so memorable."

(This passage is taken from an article on B.P. which appeared in the February 1996 edition of Contemporary Review)

Jun 12, 2010, 7:42 pm

I am in the process of re-reading Barbara Pym's Excellent Women as I lie in my bed recovering from foot surgery. What an excellent enterprise!!
With this second reading, I am getting more of her subtle, absurd and sly humor. There is a plentitude!
I have to confess to some background that makes this book an especially fun read for myself-I am a member of the Episcopal Church in the US and I am also on the altar guild of my church. My husband is the only male member of our altar guild. Suffice it to say altar guild work, is work done by " excellent women" and also by my husband.
The humor is gentle and fun and you don't have to be converted to enjoy it. daboz in KC