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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Barbara Pym: An Excellent Woman? Most of the Time.

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Pym’s life spanned the better part of the 20th century. Born in Shropshire in 1913, Pym began writing early, but had her true intellectual awakening at Oxford, where she met companions who would become not only friends for life but models for her characters. Popular but not exactly pretty, she fell frequently and painfully in love. It’s a pattern that would recur throughout Pym’s life. She had a taste for the wrong men: unworthy, unavailable or gay, sometimes all of the above. She could be self-sacrificing to the point of masochism, subsisting on crumbs of affection — not only did she work as a secretary for one such fellow, paid “30 shillings a week and a few caresses,” but while doing so she found a half-finished love poem he’d written to his future (first) wife, written, as Byrne tells us, “in ‘bad mock-heroic.’” When he returned, he found that Pym had finished (and improved) the poem.

Pym’s most satisfying love affair seems to have been her most regrettable. A passionate Germanophile (she affected a Tyrolean hat and was given to using “selbstverständlich” instead of “of course”), she visited Germany several times between 1934 and 1938, and was impressed by Nazism, and by one Nazi in particular: Friedbert Glück, who seems to have been a member of the SS. They spent weeks together, and wrote often; Glück sent her a photo of himself, which she framed for her desk, and a copy of one of Hitler’s speeches. Pym ultimately seems to have renounced both Friedbert and her past affection for him. (“One feels one ought to be ashamed of ever having been fond of a German,” she wrote in 1941.) But Byrne treats Pym’s Nazi interests — not quite sympathies — at length and without the reticence of Pym’s earlier and less impartial biographers. And she resurfaces an early draft of Pym’s first published novel, 1950’s “Some Tame Gazelle,” which included several affectionate references to the Nazis, “rather special people.”

In its willingness to present its subject’s less appealing side, Byrne’s improves on the previous biographies, a cottage industry of Pymiana maintained by her friends and family. And Byrne is good at filling in some of the contemporary context that informed her life and work. But as with the earlier books, Byrne’s main source is the Pym trove at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It is a huge resource — decades of journals, notebooks, drafts and letters — but also a hindrance: Where the author is silent, Byrne is reduced to silence, too. Seemingly important events, like the death of Pym’s mother, are dispatched in a sentence. Much is read into lacunae in the record: When Pym expurgates her diaries at emotional moments, Byrne must hazard guesses at the precise reasons. About the last unhappy affair of Pym’s life, her friendship-or-more with Richard “Skipper” Roberts, a wealthy gay gadabout whom she would send up in 1978’s “The Sweet Dove Died” — which was dedicated to him — Byrne writes, “It is impossible to know how physical the relationship between Pym and Skipper ever became.” But one way might have been to ask him. Roberts died in 2020. If Byrne reached out to him for the book, she makes no mention of it.

In keeping with contemporary tastes, the titular adventures are mostly of the heart. Much attention is paid to Pym’s friendships with men, often gay, who (unusually for the time) peopled her fiction as well as her life. But the longest and most significant relationship of Pym’s life, with her younger sister Hilary, gets fairly scant attention — even though the two lived together for decades. Pym’s long career at the International African Institute, which gave her abundant material for her novels, is hardly discussed; and not much consideration is given to her faith.

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