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A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (1984)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: Hazel Holt (Editor), Hilary Pym (Editor)

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3631054,162 (3.89)42
'Could one write a book based on one's diaries over thirty years? I certainly have enough material,' wrote Barbara Pym. This book, selected from the diaries, notebooks and letters of this much loved novelist to form a continuous narrative, is indeed a unique autobiography, providing a privileged insight into a writer's mind. Philip Larkin wrote that Barbara Pym had 'a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life'. Her autobiography amply demonstrates this, as it traces her life from exuberant times at Oxford in the thirties, through the war when, scarred by an unhappy love affair, she joined the WRNS, to the published novelist of the fifties. It also deals with the long period when her novels were out of fashion and no one would publish them, her rediscovering in 1977, and the triumphant success of her last few years. It is now possible to describe a place, situation or person as 'very Barbara Pym'. A Very Private Eye, at once funny and moving, shows the variety and depth of her own story.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
2020 has become my year of rereading the novels of Barbara Pym, my favourite novelist - "favourite" in the sense of "speaks most to my soul", not as in "greatest" or "best"; I believe she would have appreciated the distinction. This is my revised review.

I rate this book 5 stars from the perspective of a Pymhead. I have many reservations, however, for the general reader.

After Barbara Pym's death from cancer in 1980, her sister Hilary and friend Hazel embarked on a decade-long project of ensuring her legacy. This involved the publication of her final work, as well as two other completed novels, four further novellas (collected as [b:Civil to Strangers and Other Writings|178573|Civil to Strangers and Other Writings|Barbara Pym|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1442721152l/178573._SY75_.jpg|2819723]), a biography ([b:A Lot to Ask: The Life of Barbara Pym|226983|A Lot to Ask The Life of Barbara Pym|Hazel Holt|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1390524126l/226983._SY75_.jpg|219861]), a cookbook(!), and this "autobiography", a hefty tome cobbled together from Pym's diary entries and letters. Ultimately they would also compel the founding of the Barbara Pym Society, which continues unabated in 2020 after both ladies have passed on.

Pym was a born correspondent, maintaining lifelong friendships via post and keeping almost 100 notebooks of daily observations and thoughts, both for personal contemplation and for future novels. A Very Private Eye is an undeniably intimate portrait of her life from an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1930s through countless love affairs, service in WWII, early literary success, the devastating years she spent completely neglected by the literary establishment, and then her late-in-life thrilling rediscovery by the public. Pym's entire oeuvre is thirteen books, so anything additional is to be cherished by Pymheads like myself.

Pym was always conscious of her own writing and presentation, and thus many of the diary entries read with a strong narrative sense. Friends would remark after her passing that she took seemingly ordinary moments and found the pathos or humour within - indeed, it is just that power for small moments that make her novels so rewarding. (During the early days of WWII, Pym sees two nuns at Selfridge's, on the hottest day of the year, buying a typewriter, and ponders what they may be doing with it!) For someone whose public image became "tweedy spinster", it is delightful to see twentysomething Barbara pondering that it's a bit "disgraceful" to buy colourful underwear, but she is bearing in mind it may be seen by some young man. Pym's life was not beset by scandal: she worked tirelessly, wrote well, engaged in several ultimately unsatisfactory love affairs, and retired with her spinster sister to the country. In that sense, this is a life portrait for Pym fans, and not the treasure trove of scandals and shocks we might expect from a life portrait of, say, Norman Mailer. But the small details - intimate and historical - make this a treasure.

Yet now I must step back. Hazel and Hilary's determination to preserve Barbara's legacy was aided by strong celebrity supporters (Philip Larkin, Iris Murdoch's husband John Bayley, and Jilly Cooper, among many others) and by the great public interest in her narrative. The stunning rediscovery after 16 years without being published; the surprising depth of her novels unknown to so many readers; the tragedy of her death almost 3 years to the day after the Times Literary Supplement piece that re-launched her career... it was a wonderful narrative that the public rushed to - especially the Americans! So the hefty nature of this volume would have made sense at the time. As an ardent fan, I can't complain; I cherish every page. But if I'm too be objective, I have a few qualms about this book, namely: the length, the lack of intertextual referencing, and the assumptions made. All of which (outlined below) can be traced back to the core problem: is this a book only for obsessives, or is this an all-purpose autobiography?

Simply put, Hazel and Hilary either were unable to be objective, or they simply made the decision that only Pym lifers would commit. The denseness of the Oxford and WWII sections becomes tiring even for a seasoned reader; the historical details are very interesting (among them an ill-fated affair with a young Nazi in the mid-1930s!), but in such numbers, they don't necessarily reveal enough about Pym the novelist, the character we have assumedly come to see. This is compounded by the near-complete absence of correspondence from 1950-1961,. i.e. the period in which Pym first became a published author. Perhaps - with working full-time and writing six novels - she had less time for writing on the side. It's an intriguing lacuna, but disappointing. (Another haze surrounds a young lover of Pym's named only "Jay" in the book; he was in fact the British Conservative MP Julian Amery, who was still alive at the time this was published, so perhaps this explains the ambiguities Holt employs.) In the later sections, Holt will often include letters from Pym to two different people recounting similar events, which suggests a determination to simply cram in as much Pymmian writing as possible.

On its own, the length wouldn't be a dealbreaker, but the un-scholarly nature of the proceedings is disappointing. A few footnotes to clarify things Pym did not note would be appreciated, from the small (did she pass that late-in-life driving test which is foreshadowed in several entries?) to the medium (her Polish acquaintances are said to have been making plans to escape to England in 1938; did they succeed?) to the large (I would have appreciated a note when, for instance, a major character from Barbara's youth is noted in passing as having died - when did they die? did they have any final correspondence with her?). Passing phrases can be frustrating, for instance when two of Barbara's former loves are noted to have died within "months of each other", but - although I cannot find an exact date for one of them - it appears to have been at least a year between the two deaths. And there are a surprising number of errors, one assumes transcription errors from the original papers. (For instance, Barbara is noted as visiting the lying-in-state of King George VI on 1 February 1952, but he didn't die until the following week!) There are clearly incorrect dates, name spellings, and other such throughout (some of which I confirmed via the companion volume, A Lot to Ask). Mine is a 1st ed, so it's possible some of these were corrected subsequently.

Most frustratingly, following from the above, is that the general reader - i.e., they who have not read all of Pym's novels - will feel a bit at sea. Holt digs out moments in Barbara's diaries where she notes an odd occurrence, which she will use years (even decades) later for a novel. But these instances are not footnoted, and all diary entries occur chronologically. So a short diary entry may appear noting an unusual person on the bus or a strange conversation overheard, which seems entirely arbitrary to the reader unaware that they form a scene from, say, A Glass of Blessings.

Hazel and Hilary, like Barbara, were "excellent women". I suffer - very unusually, for me - a sense of betrayal raising these qualms, but it is frustrating to feel a quibble of doubt when reading a note or a date. Still, beyond the surface-level qualms, this is a volume that I adore. I'm not a reader of biographies, so I don't know why I enjoy knowing that Pym's lavatory calendar one year was Shakespeare-based with an over-emphasis on Troilus and Cressida or the names of the final litter of kittens in the Pym household. It's all gold to me - but the world awaits a definitive, thoroughly-researched, literature-focused biography. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
A fascinating and intimate glimpse of a writer who is (in my opinion) highly underrated for her subtle humor and dark comic moments. It was heartbreaking to read about Pym's long struggle with rejection as a writer after an initial burst of success, particularly in the midst of a cancer struggle. Her wicked humor emerges in her letters and diaries, particularly the dig at John Lennon's long hair as emerging from a female Victorian writer (I cackled at that). I've made it my new goal to introduce as many people as I can to Ms. Barbara Pym. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Very interesting progression from besotted university student to struggling middle ages to finally the poignant reversal of fortunes almost too late to be of any benefit. ( )
  marti.booker | Dec 2, 2013 |
This collection of diary entries, brief journal notes, and letters allows the reader to follow the arc of Barbara Pym's life as she moves from besotted college student to WRN to middle-aged office worker, to Booker prize nominee and finally to death from cancer in her sixties. I was surprised at how you could understand how her experiences led her to make certain decisions about her life (joining the WRNS an obvious example, but there were others) and how moving it was to watch her mature and cope with life's many disappointments. Of course you learn much about her novels and about how she wrote her life's experiences into them. Her sense of humor and irony never left her! The chief flaw is with the WRNS section which drags on, in part because she was going through a self-absorbed period which thankfully lifted when she returned to London and novel-writing. ( )
  PatsyMurray | Oct 15, 2013 |
(? No indication as to where I got this. I suspect the book stall in Greenwich, but I’m not sure)

An autobiography collected by Barbara Pym’s sister and executrix out of her diaries and letters, this is of necessity not as selective or well-shaped as a conventional biography would be. Some of the student writings were pretty gushy, and I found the Stevie Smith-like letters to Elsie almost unbearably pathetic in their attempts at cheer and not caring about her marriage to Pym’s love, Henry; but I did love the letters to Larkin, although I would have liked to read his to her, too), even though the inclusion of these, diary entries and letters to another correspondent gave rather a repetitive effect at times. There was a lot of good detail about the writing of all of her books, the background to Quartet in Autumn being particularly interesting (this from someone who claims not to want to know about the authorial intent – oh well!).

On this repetition, I suppose that in 1984, with Pym gone 4 years previously and the posthumous publication of “Civil to Strangers”, etc., not yet completed, this gave people want they wanted – as much more of Pym’s words and writings as they could possibly get. You can’t really argue with that.

I loved the glimpses of Iris Murdoch (of course), and also of Paul Binding, who I met at the Pym Conference, and who actually introduced BP to IM, at his house! ( )
1 vote LyzzyBee | Aug 3, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pym, Barbaraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Holt, HazelEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pym, HilaryEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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It is now possible to describe a place, a situation or a person as `very Barbara Pym'.
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I had a letter from the Editor of the Church Times saying that although they didn't now normally have space for novel reviews he was going to review mine . . . if only because I had given so many splendid free commercials for the Church Times
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'Could one write a book based on one's diaries over thirty years? I certainly have enough material,' wrote Barbara Pym. This book, selected from the diaries, notebooks and letters of this much loved novelist to form a continuous narrative, is indeed a unique autobiography, providing a privileged insight into a writer's mind. Philip Larkin wrote that Barbara Pym had 'a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life'. Her autobiography amply demonstrates this, as it traces her life from exuberant times at Oxford in the thirties, through the war when, scarred by an unhappy love affair, she joined the WRNS, to the published novelist of the fifties. It also deals with the long period when her novels were out of fashion and no one would publish them, her rediscovering in 1977, and the triumphant success of her last few years. It is now possible to describe a place, situation or person as 'very Barbara Pym'. A Very Private Eye, at once funny and moving, shows the variety and depth of her own story.

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Book description
Compiled after the death of Barbara Pym from her diaries, letters and notebooks by her sister, Hilary Pym, and her colleague and literary executor, Hazel Holt.
This book is actually by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym Walton.

MACMILLAN EDITION:
'Could one write a book based on one's diaries over thirty years? I certainly have enough material,' wrote Barbara Pym. This book selected from the diaries, notebooks and letters of this much loved novelist to form a continuous narrative, is indeed a unique autobiography, providing a privileged insight into a writer's mind.
Philip Larkin wrote that Barbara Pym had a 'unique eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life.' Her autobiography amply demonstrates this, as it traces her life from the exuberant times at Oxford in the thirties, through the war when, scarred by an unhappy love affair, she joined the WRNS, to the published novelist of the fifties. It also deals with the long period when her novels were out of fashion and no one would publish them, her rediscovery in 1977, and the triumphant success of her last few years.
It is now possible to describe a place, situation or person as 'very Barbara Pym'. A Very Private Eye, at once funny and moving, shows the variety and depth of her own story.
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