One of the hallmarks of an excellent literary biography is that it has you clamouring to read the work of its subject. That's exactly how I felt after reading this brilliant life of the novelist Barbara Pym, written with Byrne's customary verve. Pym's career was defined largely by rejection, her novels quickly deemed old-fashioned, with their stories of English villages, unrequited love and small social dramas, Byrne shows. But, like Jane Austen, there is much more to her work than this suggests, she argues, retelling Pym's life in the form of a heroine's picaresque adventure.
The Pym who comes to life in this engaging and ultimately moving book is a woman who was sometimes brave and sometimes morally blind, a romantic who had a sense of the absurdity of romance but for whom dreams could overcome common sense, a woman who faced the challenges of growing older as a single woman with courage, a woman with the gift of keeping lifelong friends. “Incidentally, people may be very untame inwardly – one can seldom know,” Pym wrote in her diary in 1933. As this exemplary biography shows, that was definitely true of Miss Barbara Pym.
A woman’s life: what an odd and lovely thing it is, but how hard to change perceptions of the way it may be seen by others. Byrne’s book is good on the work, and it moves through the necessary facts as smoothly as a spoon through homemade jam. Its greatest achievement, however, lies in something at once more vital and more nebulous: her deep kinship with her subject’s excitable, unbridled heart. Those who think of Pym as the human equivalent of a winceyette nightie should smarten up their ideas. The pink suspender belt isn’t the half of it.
Pym hardly needs rediscovery. Her books are in print, admired by a substantial coterie, and have the tolerant investigation of a specific time and place that never really dates. Byrne has done us a great service by going beyond the defensiveness that many previous writers on Pym have understandably felt necessary, and exploring this very unusual personality. She avoids, too, the danger that many writers on idiosyncratic novelists fall into, of not examining their place in the wider literary ecology.
There was something pre-Feminist, likewise, about Pym’s female characters, who are never more than bulwarks for their menfolk, drudges really; cooking, pouring tea and typing up their papers as unpaid secretaries.
She went out of print. Twenty-one other publishers also sent rejection slips. It was only when Larkin wrote an enthusiastic article in 1977 that Pym was rediscovered — though too late for her to enjoy success for long. She died of breast cancer in 1980, while living with her sister in Finstock, Oxfordshire, a village which could be Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead.
There is much more to know about Pym’s own life than her churchgoing and her love affairs, doomed or otherwise. Byrne, an experienced biographer, has resurrected Pym and her milieu. Writers such as the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett make appearances, alongside more quotidian events, complemented by Byrne’s astute notes on the detailed parallels between her subject’s life and her fiction.
In this excellent – a word that always carried extra heft in Pym’s universe – biography Byrne explores how her art emerged from three distinct yet porous registers of experience. First was the life lived, then the life elaborately recorded and embroidered in the dense trove of notebooks and letters, which Pym bequeathed to her beloved Bodleian, and finally life as it is transmuted into her deeply autobiographical novels.... Although Pym’s archive has already been well picked over by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate its revelations into a cradle-to-grave biography. She gives a seamless timeline of Pym’s life as a provincial solicitor’s daughter, Oxford undergraduate, wartime Wren and diligent employee of the International African Society. Byrne doesn’t dodge the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathiser (she even had a swastika pin that she wore around Oxford) went on longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but she is clear too how completely it was bound up with Pym’s feelings for prewar Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of communism from Russia.
Even the forthright Byrne gets a bit queasy here, wryly calling Pym’s affair with an SS officer “unfortunate”. However, young Pym was wildly smitten. She bleached her hair, sported a swastika brooch and taught herself German, returning several times and simply ignoring the sinister politics — even writing a Nazi subplot into Some Tame Gazelle. Byrne puts this madness down to stubborn romanticism: Pym just wouldn’t believe that her lover, who on one of her visits may well have been rounding up and executing disabled people, could ever be cruel.
Prepare yourself for a long read. Byrne presents Pym’s life story in the picaresque style of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: 124 chapters with titles such as “In which our Heroine sees Friedbert for the Last Time” and “In which Miss Pym leaves Pimlico for Barnes”. Byrne justifies this comic-epic format by suggesting that Pym “spent a lot of time in love” and “on the road”. I’m not sure about the on the road part: for 28 years she held down the same editorial job in central London, not going anywhere much except to join the dwindling congregation at St Laurence’s, Brondesbury until it closed in 1971.