Invisible Ink: No 68 - Barbara Pym

Few careers are so easily destroyed by a fall from fashion. Some writers return to popularity, but none in such a spectacular manner as Barbara Pym, a quintessentially English novelist whose 12 miniaturist novels can now be described as both popular and timeless.

Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, one year before the Great War. She attempted her first book, Young Men in Fancy Dress, at 16 and her second, Some Tame Gazelle, at 22, periodically submitting it to publishers who always turned it down. She wrote about characters she knew and understood. Her mother was a church organist, so vicars and curates inevitably appeared in her books. She and her sister Hilary featured in the second, projected into the future as spinsters. And anthropologists tended to crop up, because of her years spent working at London's International African Institute.

By the time another World War broke out, she had still not been published. After, she and Hilary moved to a flat in Pimlico, and she wrote stories for women's magazines without any real success.

Then, in 1950, Jonathan Cape published a revised version of Some Tame Gazelle, finally launching her career. Pym's first six books established her as a unique voice. Her plots left faint impressions but her style allowed her to explore the lives of unassuming, genteel characters with clarity and originality. She found her voice and her audience.

In 1963, disaster struck. An Unsuitable Attachment was returned without a contract; in the era of the Beatles, she had fallen out of step with the times. Shattered by the rejection, she felt that no one would ever admire her style of writing again. Further books were rejected as publishers swept out their cupboards and chased new trends.

On 21 January 1977, after 16 years of obscurity, Pym was named "the most underrated novelist of the 20th century" by both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin in the Times Literary Supplement. Overnight, her books were published (although not by Cape), she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and discovered a huge, eager new audience in America.

Only three years after her rediscovery, she succumbed to a recurrence of breast cancer. She said: "The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things. The trivial pleasures like cooking, one's home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard." She is buried beside her beloved sister.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before