After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym? The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’ Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.
I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals. Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon.
In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’ It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’
Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015. In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’ The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin. Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.
Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents. Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’. When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive. She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them. Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.
Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’
In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world. When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’ Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.
In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points. It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.
Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980. There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly. She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.
First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure. One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all. Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding. So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious. Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying. I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.