Review of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Modern Jane Austen

If you know the quiet little gems that are the novels of Barbara Pym, you may be surprised by the number and intensity of the writer’s love affairs, all doomed to failure. Paula Byrne brings these mostly painful experiences to the fore in “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Biography” and shows how Pym wrung from them a quick and coldly ironic view of the relationships between men and women. Ms. Byrne, author of two novels, as well as books, on Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, among others, gives us a work that surpasses in length and detail the two previous book accounts of Pym’s life: the most discreet ” A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym” (1990) by her friend, Hazel Holt, and “A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters” (1984) edited by Holt and Pym’s sister, Hilary. May -maybe we can hope that now, with this huge biography, and with all of Pym’s novels available in print, this master of resignation comedy won’t fade away – as she nearly did in her own lifetime.

Among the many relics of the buttoned past that the 1960s threw down the drain were the novels of Barbara Pym. In a great brash and brash time, they were sadly overwhelmed, feeling post-war deprivation and preoccupied with bachelors, seasoned widows, paid journeymen, young priests and fortifying cups of tea. In addition to the novels’ seemingly outdated perspectives, the problem was also that Pym’s genius lay in his attention to what people mistakenly consider trivialities – sharing a bathroom, attending scholarly lectures, mending the socks of the another woman’s husband, eating spaghetti – the minor labors which, in fact, constitute the main substance of life. The dark comedy and subtle wit of the novels was lost in an age that admired provocation over restraint and was deaf to irony.

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