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Books always make the best Christmas gifts... there are plenty to choose from in this issue, which marks 15 years of Books Monthly on the web!!

The very best Christmas features... Jerry Dowlen celebrates the life and centenary of Barbara Pym...

"Cod on Fridays, and those endless cups of tea": celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the novelist Barbara Pym.

It is time to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Books Monthly! Hearty congratulations to our editor Paul Edmund Norman on reaching this splendid landmark. Now, surely, one big literary anniversary deserves another?

This year 2013 has marked the centenary of Barbara Pym (1913 - 1980). She is one of our most popular modern authors. Lord David Cecil held that her "unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels are the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England in the twentieth century." And the famous poet Philip Larkin said: "She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life."

Born in Shropshire, educated at Oxford, Barbara Pym published six acclaimed novels between 1950 and 1961. Then, after a period in the wilderness when publishers rejected her stories of vicars and spinsters as too old-fashioned for the Swinging 'Sixties, she enjoyed a second vogue of popularity after 1977, sending out a further six published novels.
If they were still around today, I wonder if Lord Cecil and Philip Larkin would argue that in her 100th anniversary year of 2013 it should be Barbara Pym’s face on the new £20 note, instead of Jane Austen! Barbara Pym's novels have been often compared to those of Jane Austen. For example, Jilly Cooper, has declared that Barbara Pym is her favourite writer ("I always pick up her books with joy") and that her "gentle, slyly comic novels always remind me of Jane Austen let loose in Cranford."

Desert Island Discs

Barbara Pym’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ on 1 August 1978 was replayed on BBC Radio 4 Extra on 2 June 2013 – the exact centenary date of her birth.

The interviewer Roy Plomley knew that for plots and characters in her novels Barbara Pym drew upon her own life experience of spinsterhood, a number of unrequited love affairs, an upbringing in a churchgoing family and a clerical career in anthropology (she worked on the journal of the International African Institute). He knew that the most exciting and dramatic thing that you might expect to encounter in a Barbara Pym story is a jumble-sale to raise funds for the church organ, two sisters debating whether a cauliflower cheese is an adequate dish to serve to the new curate who is their guest for luncheon, or a visit to an abbey or a castle on a wet afternoon during a holiday by the English seaside

Conversing in the clipped BBC English of that period, Roy Plomley and Barbara Pym discussed brief highlights of her life, her novels about “church and unsensational lives”, and her writing technique. In her rather thin, plummy voice Barbara Pym identified the writers Edgar Wallace and Aldous Huxley as early inspirations for her to write.

After stating that poetry was one of her greatest literary loves Barbara Pym chose as one of her eight Desert Island Discs a recording of Philip Larkin reading his poem 'An Arundel Tomb'. In part, surely, she chose this in gratitude to Philip Larkin for his kindness (and that of Lord Cecil) in speaking up for her and restoring her books to public prominence in 1977. But I wonder too if Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ appealed to her in particular because it contains the line: “That faint hint of the absurd”? It is a line that perfectly captures the subtle humour that she was so adept at weaving into her own novels. To cite just two examples from ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ (1950): a member of the congregation is said to resemble a lighthouse, because of the way that her grey dress sits on her narrow shoulders and broad hips; another villager is the widow of a Member of Parliament – “an excellent man in his way, although he had never been known to speak in the House except on one occasion, when he had asked if a window might be opened or shut.”


Barbara Pym told Roy Plomely that she had retired from the hurly burly of London to live in the Oxfordshire countryside. But throughout her youth and her adult life she had written constantly. “I can't stop writing. It gets hold of you. I try to write every morning: two pages; 800 words. I keep notebooks for jotting down quotations, ideas, and things that have happened.”

Poetry in the novels of Barbara Pym: “These remembered scraps of culture had a habit of coming out unexpectedly.”


If you didn’t already know that Barbara Pym in real life was a lover of poetry, you would soon discern it from reading her novels. She allows many of her fictional characters to recite poetry out loud or sotto voce. We see this from a good few of the academics, clergymen and theologians who populate her stories, but the habit is by no means restricted to these more obviously erudite characters. Just about anyone, it seems, is capable of suddenly bursting into verse! 

Rocky, ex-Naval officer and reputed conqueror of many Wrens, has a marriage with Helena in ‘Excellent Women’ (1952) that seems to be as rocky as his name. Happily, they find reconciliation near the end of the story. They share a poetic moment that includes Rocky reciting some lines of Dante – firstly in English and then in the original Italian. Earlier in the book, Rocky takes a book of poems from a shelf and reads an extract of a Matthew Arnold poem.

Matthew Arnold crops up too in ‘No Fond Return of Love’ (1961). Aylwin Forbes finds that some lines of Arnold come into his head during a train journey to the seaside where his mother runs a guest-house. Aylwin is a serial poetry-reciter. When he chances to meet Dulcie Mainwaring on the promenade and it begins to rain, he is instantly reminded of a Shakespeare sonnet:

Why did thou promise such a beauteous day,

And make me travel forth without my cloak.


Dulcie is on holiday with her friend Viola who secretly fancies Aylwin and has carried out some secretarial work for him in the past. Viola shows off in front of Aylwin at a luncheon party when she recites some lines of Dante (the same lines that Rocky recites in ‘Excellent Women’). In her turn, Viola is treated to a recital of some German poetry when her new suitor Willy Sedge – of Viennese extraction – woos her at a later stage of the story.

How is it, I wonder, that all these characters have developed such a readiness to remember and to recite, either out loud or in their head, a line or two of poetry as a reaction to something that is occurring in their lives? Are we meant to assume that the educated classes generally in those days – the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – were poetry aficionados as a matter of course? Or do we assume that each of the characters had acquired his or her specialised knowledge of poetry by dint of some particular personal circumstance such as family upbringing or job? 

We are told little, for example, of the background of Wilmet Forsyth, heroine of ‘A Glass of Blessings’ (1958). She is age thirty-three, married, and a regular churchgoer. There is nothing that suggests an overly educated upbringing, but we nevertheless find that some poetry of Marvell comes readily to her mind during a visit to a nunnery garden:

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than Empires and more show …


Yes: Barbara Pym’s novels parade for us a veritable cast of poetry-spouters! This is particularly so in ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ where “scraps of culture have a habit of coming out unexpectedly” from a varied cross-section of characters who span different occupations and backgrounds.

In the novel ‘Less Than Angels’ (1955) the central character Catherine Oliphant does at least acknowledge that poetry doesn’t necessarily hit the spot with everyone on our planet. She works as a journalist and writes romantic stories that are published in magazines. She sits one evening in her little flat near Regents Park: “Dear as remembered kisses after death, she typed idly, but was it likely that her hero would have read Tennyson or quoted the line aloud like that? Not very, she thought, getting up and walking around the room.”

When we visit Barbara Pym’s early-written novel ‘Crampton Hodnet’ (completed in 1940 but not published till 1985) we find evidence that she filled her novels with poetry from the very first. We are only a few pages in when we find the plain and timid churchgoing Miss Morrow working on a good cause: she knits a balaclava hat for a seaman, and the lines from a hymn come into her head:


Fierce was the wild billow,
Dark was the night,
Wail of the hurricane
Be thou at rest.

Barbara Pym never wrote a book entitled ‘Remembering Scampi’! That potential title was suggested by Mr Bason, the excitable and sexually-ambiguous vicarage housekeeper and cook, in conversation with Wilmet Forsyth and her husband Rodney in ‘A Glass of Blessings’. During this discussion Mr Bason moreover uttered one of my favourite lines from any of the novels - a line that I would suggest is superbly poetic in itself, and is certainly a quintessential line that sums up what any Barbara Pym novel is all about!


“Cod on Fridays, and those endless cups of tea.”


Jerry Dowlen

Artwork by: Trevor Mulligan

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