Anglican Notables – Barbara Pym – 11 January 2021

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Barbara Pym

Born 2 June 1913 (Oswestry, Shropshire, England) – Died 11 January 1980 (Oxford, England)

Novelist.

[The featured photo of Barbara Pym was taken in the 1970s, probably at her and her sister Hilary’s residence in Finstock, Oxfordshire.  (I do not know the name of the cat.)]

Pym’s best-known novels: Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958). Follow this link for a list of her novels with brief summaries of each of them.

Two twentieth-century Anglican writers who seem to have very little in common are T. S. Eliot and Barbara Pym, at least when one reads their respective works.  But aside from the fact that both were fond of cats (Eliot because he wrote a collection of poems about cats and Pym because, well, the featured photo says it all) and aside from the fact that Eliot was baptized at Holy Trinity Church, Finstock, Oxfordshire, where Pym later worshiped,[1] both were able to turn everyday sameness and disappointments into poetry, which is what can happen when, assailed by acedia (spiritual torpor), we nonetheless keep on the alert for grace.

Eliot had the shock of Modernism to jolt readers into alertness when reading about spiritual torpor, modern anomie, and other less-than-scintillating topics.  Pym’s approach is much more subtle and is prone to fizzle for readers who suffer from what I call irony deficiencies.  Which helps explain why, as the literary critic Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin agreed in 1977, Pym is the most under-rated writer of the twentieth century.[2]  Pym did not merely write about “such quotidian events as jumble sales and walks in the woods,”[3] her novels are also populated by un-interesting, ordinary people, a fair number of them Anglican clergymen and spinsters in small English towns—neither heroes nor anti-heroes.  It is little wonder that publishers who finally began publishing her novels in the 1950s ceased doing so as the celebrity-ridden ‘60s came into full swing.

[Pym on the occasion of the Booker Prize Dinner of 1977.  She was nominated for the prize that year but did not win it—another of the “small unpleasantnesses” this fine writer suffered.  For a dramatization (a quiet, elegiac dramatization) of this episode from Pym’s life, follow this link.]

Here, in Pym’s own words, are the thoughts of Mildred Lathbury in Pym’s novel Excellent Women (published in 1952): “After all, life was like that for most of us—the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”

I agree with Ellen Miller’s assessment that Pym’s novels “still sparkle as brightly as jewels on the literary landscape.”  “The real world has changed enormously in the years since” Pym wrote, Miller continues, “but the ‘entirely recognizable world’ she created remains forever intact, beckoning readers to return time and again.”[4]  And part of the sparkle of Pym’s novels, I am convinced, is due to her quiet eye that is open to discovering the True, the Beautiful, and the Good in the ordinary, daily round, which is exactly what the monastic life invites us to do.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


[1] Finstock – Holy Trinity Church – Church / Chapel in Finstock, West Oxfordshire – Oxfordshire Cotswolds

[2] 20 Notoriously Underrated Writers You Should Be Reading ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com)

[3] Biography – Barbara Pym Society (barbara-pym.org)

[4] Biography – Barbara Pym Society (barbara-pym.org)

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