The first in a year of events commemorating the centenary of the birth of Barbara Pym happens today at the Oxford Literary Festival. "Larkin's Letters to Barbara Pym" celebrates the friendship between the two writers, and starts at 10am in the Bodleian Library, which happens to hold all the letters of both.
It's all very Oxford: reading the letters will be the actors Triona Adams – a St Hilda's graduate (like Pym) – and Oliver Ford Davies, the father of a St Hilda's graduate. The performance was devised by the biographer Ann Thwaite (also St Hilda's) and her husband Anthony Thwaite, the editor of Philip Larkin's letters. It will be introduced by Eileen Roberts, of the Barbara Pym Society, which of course is based at St Hilda's College.
Barbara Mary Crampton Pym, right, was born on 2 June 1913, in Oswestry, Shropshire. Her mother was the assistant organist at St Oswald parish church, and the vicars and curates who came to the family home were soon adapted as characters in Pym's novels. Her first was written when she was 16. Young Men in Fancy Dress was not published, but it remains in her archive at the Bodleian Library.
After graduating from Oxford, Pym wrote Some Tame Gazelle – about two spinster sisters who bore remarkable similarities to herself and her sister Hilary – but this was also rejected by publishers. She joined the Wrens during the Second World War and was posted to Naples, before taking a job at the International African Institute in London, and then as the assistant editor of the journal Africa. Finally, a revised edition of Some Tame Gazelle was published by Jonathan Cape in 1950, and Pym was a hit.
Over the next few years, Pym built up a body of work and a reputation as a "chronicler of quiet lives", with a "unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life", as Larkin put it. But in 1963, her publisher turned down her next book, An Unsuitable Attachment – and then, so did 19 others. A true victim of fashion, Pym could not get published for 16 years.
Philip Larkin was partly responsible for Pym's sudden return to glory, when he wrote in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977 that she was "the most underrated novelist of the 20th century". After 16 years in what she called "the wilderness", Pym's books were republished and reached a whole new American audience. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Quartet in Autumn in 1977. She died in 1980.
Several of Pym's novels were published posthumously: An Unsuitable Attachment, Crampton Hodnet, Civil to Strangers and a sort-of autobiography, A Very Private Eye. A biography by her friend, Barbara Holt, was published in 1990.
For hard-core fans, there is even a perfume that smells like Barbara Pym – or at least her books, according to its designer. Paperback, sold by Demeter Fragrance in America, smells like "a dusty old copy of a Barbara Pym novel … sweet and just a touch musty". It is available as a cologne as well as a massage and body oil ($12). Who wouldn't want to be massaged by a Barbara Pym? The American Barbara Pym Society also sells Pym mugs, tote bags and pottery.
Further information about this year's centenary events can be found at: barbara-pym.org.
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