Patron Saint of Quiet Lives: A Look2 Essay on Barbara Pym
The Look2 essay series, which replaces our print book reviews, takes a closer look at the careers of accomplished authors who have yet to receive the full appreciation that their work deserves. Reviews of new books can still be found on our blog at http://blog.pshares.org/
In her 1977 novel, Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym wrote of her heroine Letty: “She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.” Letty was giving voice to her creator’s fervent wish to see her “own sort of life”—one without a husband or children, which revolved around work—reflected in the fiction of her time. With a handful of exceptions, it was not, and Pym wrote twelve novels in part to compensate for this lack. Like Pym herself, her heroines are memorable for their humor, wit, and resignation to disappointments great and small.
Pym has been accused by critics of writing the same novel over and over again. Since she is no longer around to defend herself, others have done it for her: “That there is a sameness to Pym’s work is by no means a disparagement; like Austen, and so many other British greats—E. F. Benson, Angela Thirkell, Nancy Mitford, and Agatha Christie in her Marple mode—she worked with a small brush on a small canvas,” writes Michael Adams in Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review. Pym’s was a narrow patch of soil, expertly tilled.
A critic for The Guardian once remarked that Pym’s books were “delightfully amusing, but no more to be described than a delicious taste or smell.” This type of dismissal was common early in her career; Pym was considered capable and entertaining, but lacking in scope and gravitas. Although her novels were well-received and regularly published from 1950 to 1963, and although she continued to produce high-quality work at a steady pace between 1963 and 1977, Pym was devastated by her inability to publish at all throughout the latter period. Her friends, family, and former publisher assured her that her work was rejected during this period not because its quality had declined, but because its subject matter was out of step with the times—the world of her novels was insulated from the sex, drugs, and social revolution then capturing the public’s imagination. “I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again,” she wrote in 1970. Two years later she noted in her diary, “The position of the unmarried woman—unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction” (a sentiment she would later attribute to Quartet in Autumn’s Letty, substituting “writer” for “readers”).
Pym was rediscovered and her career briefly revived in 1977—fourteen long years after she had last been published and only three years before she died. That was the year in which Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil characterized her, in the January 21st issue of The Times Literary Supplement, as the most underrated writer of the last seventy-five years. (Pym was the only writer then living who was so characterized by two different respondents to the TLS poll.) “The six novels of Barbara Pym published between 1950 and 1961…give an unrivaled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England,” wrote Larkin. “She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life.” According to Lord Cecil David, Pym’s “unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels, especially Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings, are for me the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years.”
Publication of Pym’s novels resumed immediately following these endorsements, beginning with Quartet in Autumn, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and continuing with The Sweet Dove Died, which, although previously rejected by a number of publishers, was published to critical acclaim in 1978. Pym died of breast cancer two years later, at the age of 66. Several previously unpublished works were published after her death. More than thirty years after this long overdue renaissance, at a time when literary success is even more closely tied to marketability than it was in the 1960s, Pym—modest, female, and without a contemporary champion—has again faded into obscurity.
Born in a little village in Shropshire in June 1913, Pym shared a home with her younger sister, Hilary, for most of her life. Her mother Irena’s position as assistant organist in the Pyms’ parish church exposed Pym to many colorful clergy members and other local figures who would later populate her novels. Hilary Pym was briefly married, but Barbara, despite having a number of male friends, admirers, and lovers, never married or had children.
She began writing her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, very shortly after taking a degree in English literature at Oxford, and finished it in 1935, when she was only twenty-two years old. The book, which is eerily prescient, features two fifty-something unmarried sisters, Harriet and Belinda Bede, who share a cottage in a small town in the English countryside. “It was never our particular intention,” wrote Hilary, several years after her older sister’s death, “in spite of the prophetic circumstances of Some Tame Gazelle…to live together, but it somehow turned out that from about 1938 right up until the time of her death in 1980 we were never apart for more than a year or so at a time.”
Pym graduated from Oxford in 1934 and briefly returned to Shropshire before traveling throughout Germany and central Europe. In 1938, she went to live with Hilary in London. Hilary was taking a secretarial course in hopes of working for the BBC; Barbara spent her days working on a novel and writing long letters to friends. When World War II broke out, she returned to her native village. Later she enlisted in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and served in Naples until the end of the war, after which she was hired as an assistant editor at the International African Institute in London. She worked at the Institute until her retirement, and the petty intrigues of the academics and office workers she encountered there provided rich material for her later novels. When she retired in 1974, she moved to Barn Cottage, a country home she and Hilary had bought in Oxfordshire. The sisters were active in their village’s community life, which revolved around the church. They lived at Barn Cottage until Barbara’s death in 1980.
The unusual circumstance of sharing a household with her sister for most of her adult life lent Pym’s depictions of intimate but nonsexual ties between women a depth rarely encountered outside of Jane Austen. While Pym was an admirer of Austen’s and in many ways her heir, she was not merely an updated version of the earlier writer. They are often compared due to the specificity of their social worlds and their rural, isolated settings, as well as the limited scope of their narratives and the neatness of their plot structures. The ordinary (and, for some readers, maddeningly trivial) concerns of Pym’s characters—food, parties, clothing, romance—are also reminiscent of Austen; other aspects of her novels, most notably their endings, are decidedly not. Austen is famous for marrying off her heroines at a novel’s end; Pym prefers to finish on a note of bittersweet wistfulness.
As John Updike noted in the February 26, 1979, edition of The New Yorker, “Miss Pym has been compared to Jane Austen, yet there is a virile country health in the Austen novels, and some vivid marital prospects for her blooming heroines.” Though Pym often allows her heroines a rather tentative optimism (“it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called ‘a full life’ after all,” thinks Mildred Lathbury at the end of Excellent Women), none of her characters can be described as living happily ever after.
Perhaps this difference can be attributed to Pym’s physical surroundings and the temperament that grew out of them. Her childhood home of Shropshire is one of England’s most rural and sparsely populated counties; it is also landlocked, and significantly colder in wintertime than other parts of the country. During the spring and summer, it’s verdant, bucolic, and breathtakingly lovely; a place uniquely suited to meandering, solitary strolls, and quiet, meditative evenings. Though hardly a recluse, Pym was not a woman who craved society. Educated and well-traveled yet unworldly, Pym won friends easily. She relished the company of a small inner circle of friends and family but was essentially indrawn, pensive, and shy. Hers was a world of limits: comfortable and familiar and staid.
She did take risks in her work, though not until later in life. An Academic Question, which was published posthumously, represents a rare attempt on Pym’s part to assume the perspective of a woman whose circumstances were markedly different from her own; the novel’s narrator, Caroline Grimstone, is not only married but a mother as well. Pym gains perspective on her subject by bringing “Two women who had just retired from jobs in London” into the mix in Chapter 15:
They were rather nice, spinster sisters, one in her late fifties and the other just sixty. Their lives were busy in an admirable way, full of interest and the pleasure of having time to do the things they had always wanted to do. I regarded them with envy as they described alterations they were making to their garden and the motoring holiday in Shropshire they had planned for later in the year. They were still good-looking and one of them, I felt sure, had once been beautiful. They must have loved in their time, perhaps loved and lost and come through it unscathed.
This is a neat summary of Pym’s apparent ambivalence about the married life she could only imagine. As lonely and wistful as her single heroines occasionally are, married Caroline hardly fares better: her husband is dull, fussy, and unfaithful; her life as a professor’s wife is tedious, stultifying, and intellectually barren. She loves her daughter but feels unfulfilled by motherhood. She envies the unmarried sisters’ freedom and their apparently happy and productive lives. At the same time, she recognizes the social advantages of being married. In Pym’s work, there are often advantages to being on the other side of the marital divide.
Contemporary retellings of Austen novels abound, but Pym has considerably less hope than her predecessor of being repackaged for a new generation. She wrote much oftener of unrequited love than of mutual romantic passion, and she doesn’t traffic in unequivocally happy endings. Yet she was a writer of uncommon delicacy, humor, and compassion whose work deserves a wider audience than it has.
Pym’s novels stand out as carefully constructed comic gems, inviting the reader to bask in the warmth of their comfortingly familiar, self-contained worlds (generally a remote village in the sparsely populated English countryside). She returned again and again to the same set of themes: relationships between men and women, relationships between two women, and the experience of being an unmarried woman of a certain age. Loneliness haunts Pym’s work, but her heroines are much more than lonely spinsters.
Pym’s description of Letty’s life in Quartet in Autumn applies in some ways to her own: “It was a comfortable enough life, if a little sterile, perhaps even deprived. But deprivation implied once having had something to be deprived of…and Letty had never really had anything much.” Pym was comfortable, but not wealthy; she worked in an office to earn money, and made enough to buy a pleasant country cottage with her sister. Unlike Letty, however, she enjoyed the constant companionship of a cherished sister. In Quartet in Autumn, Letty wonders, “might not the experience of ‘not having’ be regarded as something with its own validity?” The question echoes throughout Pym’s work; she answers it with a resounding affirmative.
In her 1955 novel, Less Than Angels, a pair of sisters, Mabel and Rhoda —one widowed, one never married—share a house and a contented life, devoid of sex but enriched by the easy companionship and minor irritations common to most long-term marriages. The same novel features another pair of women, the Misses Clovis and Lydgate, who live together but are not related; they are academics, the sort of mannish, pragmatic women who don’t mind living untidily and eating most of their meals “out of tins” (one senses authorial judgment in the description of their shared flat, or perhaps merely bafflement, at the idea that two women could bear, let alone thrive in, such circumstances; Pym herself was a fastidious housekeeper and an accomplished cook).
Less Than Angels’ Rhoda Wellcome is a fussbudget: she worries about her sister Mabel’s inefficiency in the kitchen, insists that they do the washing-up immediately after dinner and lay the table for the next morning’s breakfast before they go to sleep, and sneaks downstairs after Mabel has gone to bed to correct her sister’s placement of the silverware. Her harmlessly neurotic presence provides comic relief. And yet even Rhoda is granted a dignity so often absent in contemporary novelistic portrayals of unmarried, middle-aged women: she is allowed feelings, desires, and tiny moments of pathos that transcend her touchingly scrupulous attention to domestic detail. Pym is careful to show us that Rhoda, while occasionally, in some cosmic way, disappointed, is far from unhappy in her everyday life. On coming to live with her sister Mabel after the death of Mabel’s husband, Gregory, we learn that:
It was a very satisfactory arrangement and Rhoda was not in the least envious of her sister’s fuller life, for now that they were both in their fifties there seemed to be very little difference between them. She would perhaps have liked what she called ‘the experience of marriage,’ a vague phrase which seemed to cover all those aspects which one didn’t talk about, but she would not have liked to have had it with poor Gregory Swan. She was still sometimes faintly interested in men, as she was now in Alaric Lydgate, but in what way she hardly knew. She certainly did not think of marriage anymore.
In Pym’s world, women in their fifties tend not to “think of marriage,” but they do not cease to think of men. They are not sexless automata, endlessly performing their household duties (although Pym’s heroines are often seen tidying up); they are complex human beings with rich inner lives. At one point in Less Than Angels, Rhoda’s beloved niece, the callow 19-year-old Deirdre, thinks of her aunt: “How silly Rhoda is…almost as if she were interested in Father Tulliver in a flirtatious way.” But Pym doesn’t allow Deirdre’s naïve perspective to stand unchallenged: “She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt’s age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested.”
What makes Pym’s work so appealing is her enormous compassion for her characters. This is particularly evident in Less Than Angels, in which Pym employs a technique similar to Virginia Woolf’s in Mrs. Dalloway. Like Woolf before her, Pym weaves in and out of various characters’ consciousnesses, so that her reader is exposed to, among others, the perspectives of a 19-year-old girl and her slightly older, vastly more experienced lover. Pym’s deepest, most enduring portraits were of women like her: unmarried, childless, educated, and comfortable. But, particularly in Less Than Angels, she attempted to show us everyone: male and female, young and old, virginal and experienced, married and unmarried, maternal and childless. And her portraits are universally just, generous, and, at times, almost shockingly sympathetic; Less Than Angels’ Tom Mallow—fickle, caddish, chillily detached—manages to retain the love of three different women, even after he serially abandons and betrays them. Selfish, amoral Deirdre is deemed worthy of sympathy and friendship by Catherine, the woman from whom Deirdre steals Tom. Pym’s characters are never entirely good or entirely bad; they are merely people. She eschewed the Victorian morality of the previous century: in her world, as in life, people are complicated, virtue often goes unrewarded, and conniving and cruelty often go unpunished.
Even the man-stealing Deirdre is originally presented as a figure of pity. We first encounter her deeply uncomfortable at a party: “At nineteen she was still young and sensitive enough to be conscious that she was standing alone and had nothing to drink and to mind about it.” It is not until later in the novel that she is courted by a man, and then almost accidentally: “Tom had never had to make much effort with women, who took a natural and immediate liking to him, so he did not lay himself out to be particularly interesting to Deirdre or to ask her anything about herself…[he] was certainly not aware of Deirdre as anything much more than a satisfactory audience…”
Deirdre is banal and rather pathetic (in Tom’s eyes, she was “rather sweet, really, like a puppy or a colt”). Even with the considerable advantages of youth, attractiveness to men, and marriageability, she does not inspire envy. It is funny, odd-looking, unmarriageable Catherine Oliphant (“not the kind of girl to attract a man,” in Rhoda’s view) whom one wishes to be. Catherine earns a living from writing fiction, maintains a cozy bohemian flat, is under no illusions about men, and does exactly as she pleases. (Shortly before stealing the older woman’s boyfriend, Deirdre wishes she were Catherine: “If only I lived by myself in a flat like Catherine’s, thought Deirdre…then I shouldn’t have to worry about family peace and hurting people’s feelings.”)
Catherine, of course, pays for her enviable independence with occasional loneliness—much as her creator paid for her own, real-life independence. Pym’s letters and diaries reveal a woman whose overall happiness was complicated by periods of intense romantic longing and ordinary human loneliness. Of herself and a female friend, Pym wrote quite cheerfully in 1943, “Of course we’re both pretty splendid. We both want the same kind of things. And fancy people not getting married and having children when they are able to…if all else fails we can always start a teashop.” A month later, her tone darkened: “When I got out of the train at Paddington in the twilight full of dim hurrying figures I felt about the most lonely person there. Oh, to be cherished and comforted at a journey’s end.” Yet at supper on the same evening of her lonely arrival in Paddington, Pym met a young Canadian officer who offered her a cigarette: “We got talking and he finished by paying for my meal.”
Pym’s most keenly unhappy moments—nearly always brought on by loneliness or rejection—were often assuaged or wholly reversed a week, a day, or even an hour later. As well as painful romantic disappointment, she experienced thrills, pleasure, and “heavenly” joy in the company of men. Hers was not a pitiable life—nor was it sexless, despite her sororal living arrangement. She embarked on several love affairs while a student at Oxford, including a tortured attachment to a man named Henry Harvey, the love of her life and the model for Some Tame Gazelle’s Henry Hoccleve. Pym herself was not always as proper as her characters; in her diary she wrote of Henry’s roommate catching her in bed with Henry, “reading ‘Samson Agonistes’…with nothing on.” As then 21-year-old Barbara jauntily noted, it was “Really rather funny. I stayed to supper.”
Of a character in the posthumously published novel An Academic Question, Pym writes, “Dolly had remained single, though she had always given me to understand that her life had not been without love. But now, in her sixties, she had grown away from human beings and only kept in touch with her former lovers for practical and material advantages; she was more moved by the sight of a hedgehog’s little leg raised to scratch itself than by any memory of a past love.” The degree to which these sentences reflected Pym’s feelings about her own station in life is not entirely clear, but it is clear that they were at least partially inspired by her own experiences. It is doubtful that Pym kept in touch with Henry only for “practical and material advantages,” but it is not unlikely that, as her life drew to a close, she was more moved by wildlife than by memories of past loves.
By Less Than Angels’ end, the reader has the distinct impression that Catherine’s free and independent life—lonely as it may sometimes be—is richer and more rewarding than Deirdre’s life of devotion to a series of unworthy men. Pym seemed to view her own life in similar terms: “Pleasure and pain in an agreeable mixture. That’s what I feel when I think of Oxford and my days at St. Hilda’s,” she wrote in her diary in 1935. The sentiment held sway throughout the rest of her life as well.
Like so many writers, Pym coped with her most difficult emotions by writing them down. She was self-aware to an often painful degree, but she also took comfort in self-mockery. When Henry Harvey married a Finnish woman named Elsie, Barbara was, in the words of her close friend and biographer Hazel Holt, “badly hurt.” But rather than discontinuing her longstanding correspondence with Henry, she began sending the couple long, satirical letters—occasionally going so far as to send separate letters to the new Mrs. Harvey, whom she addressed as “My darling sister Elsie.” In these letters she often adopted the persona of a lovelorn spinster.
While she sometimes truly felt like a lovelorn spinster, she was also conscious of the extent to which she enjoyed exaggerating such feelings for comic and dramatic effect. “What a depressing letter I write to my dear sister!” she declared in a 1938 letter to Elsie. “She will say, ‘Oh, this Barbara, she is always weeping and ill-treated and suffering, nicht wahr?’ Whereas in reality, she is smoking, eating, drinking, using much lipstick, making new clothes, writing letters to dear friends, thinking out a new novel, reading nice poems by Mr. John Betjeman, making plans for visiting a foreign country, and dreaming at night of somebody she loves very much.” (The “somebody” was not Henry, but another lover.)
Pym’s daily life was one of extraordinary richness and fulfillment. She was a firm believer in drawing emotional, as well as physical, sustenance from the small daily pleasures of food and drink. “Life’s problems are often eased by hot milky drinks,” thinks the heroine of No Fond Return of Love as she drifts off to sleep at the end of the novel’s first chapter.
Such statements are easy to caricature. But Pym was not a trivial person; if she occasionally transformed her feelings into punch lines or prescribed—tongue half in cheek—strong tea or a cup of Ovaltine to ease emotional pain, it was because she felt too deeply, rather than not deeply enough. “Life is first boredom, then fear / Whether or not we use it, it goes, / And leaves what something hidden from us chose, / And age, and then the only end of age,” wrote Pym’s friend Philip Larkin in his poem “Dockery and Son.” Though the two had overlapping senses of humor, Pym was not nearly as cynical as Larkin.
Pym’s was a world of muted emotions, populated by women with the emotional resilience and resourcefulness required to live alone (or to take care of themselves while living with others). When their worlds are upended—when, for example, Catherine Oliphant’s live-in lover in Less Than Angels abandons her for a 19-year-old graduate student—they do not fall apart. Instead, they fix a cup of good, strong tea and pull themselves together. They are either “excellent women” (“excellent” being shorthand for proper, well-behaved, and virtuous) or trying very hard to be. They are full of the virtue admired by John Updike in The New Yorker in 1979: “Excellent Women, arriving on these shores in a heyday of sexual hype, is a startling reminder that solitude may be chosen, and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience.”
The most exciting event in Pym’s world was the occasional arrival in town of a handsome new vicar. An unmarried woman over the age of thirty had little hope of finding someone to marry, and opportunities to flirt were confined to offering to do a man’s laundry or type up his notes or have him over for a nice Sunday roast. Many found the constraints of this lifestyle uncongenial and even oppressive. But for a certain type of woman—the type who shared Barbara Pym’s passion for literature, church, cooking, housekeeping, and quiet country living—village life was more comfort than trap.
Some Tame Gazelle’s Bede sisters are quite content within the confines of this life, and not at all pathetic or repressed (despite Belinda’s occasional fears that others view them as such). Harriet and Belinda lead happy, full, and comfortable lives. Pym’s characters are not above or beyond romance, but we see them engaging in other pursuits as well, including reading, thinking, discussing literature, going to church, preparing meals. The women of Pym’s novels have interests and concerns outside of themselves. They devote the largest share of their energy, passion, and intellect to being upstanding members of their communities.
Pym’s heroines have male love interests, and, even in middle age, suitors, but they live independently of these men, whom they consider a bit more than mere diversions and a bit less than central figures. Men make life more interesting, but they’re hardly necessary to one’s existence (in fact, for the Bede sisters, male suitors are threatening and disruptive). Ultimately the women choose each other over marriage to men.
A scene in which Belinda visits her old lover Henry’s house for a few hours while his wife is out of town and allows him to read to her as he used to do in their college days has a powerful yet subtle eroticism; as one reviewer wrote in a 1983 edition of The New York Times Book Review, “restraint is the point.”
Like all of Pym’s novels, Some Tame Gazelle is built on this sense of restraint, which breeds intense emotional responses to relatively little action. Nothing much happens in this book: old friends come to visit; the sisters attend several social events at their village church; Henry’s wife takes a trip. Yet such events take on the significance of high drama for the reader who comes to care about its protagonists.
We care about Belinda because she is the kind of heroine whose heroism comes from quietly accepting life’s little indignities and sparing herself and her neighbors the pain and embarrassment acting on her desires would surely bring. We wish the best for her precisely because she does not scheme, manipulate, or even advocate on her own behalf; we feel protective of a woman whose disappointments are so keenly felt and whose desires, so touchingly modest in their scope, are nevertheless destined to remain unfulfilled.
The notable tenderness with which Pym treats characters like Belinda is laced with usually gentle mockery. Because she wrote her characters with herself and her loved ones in mind, her capacity for sympathy is profound, yet she is unflinching and exacting when it comes to honing in on their flaws. Her humor is incisive without being unkind; she knows just where to slip in the knife and how to do it without leaving a scar. In Quartet in Autumn, Janice Brabner, a local do-gooder, decides to go around the neighborhood visiting the elderly who live alone. Attempting to invite Marcia to a charitable get-together, Janice begins,“Some of us at the Centre have been worrying about the lonely ones.”
The next lines are classic Pym, simultaneously acid and forgiving of the woman’s tactlessness, and always insisting on her characters’ dignity: “Could she really have prepared that sentence, for this was what came out. Marcia gave her no encouragement.”
Pym was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1971 and began treatment in London. The cancer went into remission, but she then suffered a minor stroke which resulted in a form of dyslexia that caused her to misspell most of her words when writing. The cancer returned several years after her retirement and it became clear that this time, she was dying. Just after Christmas 1979 she entered Sobell House, an Oxfordshire hospice, and died there a short time later, on the morning of January 11, 1980.
“Throughout her [final] illness she had maintained a cheerful stoicism, very down-to-earth and practical, never self-pitying,” writes Hazel Holt. “She was sustained, certainly, by her strong faith and still able, as she had been throughout her life, to draw comfort from small pleasures and ironies…this is, perhaps, the greatest gift she has bequeathed to all who read her.” Pym’s stoicism was decidedly British in flavor. Americans tend to believe that one can and must always strive to improve one’s circumstances, while Pym exhibited a paradoxically optimistic brand of resignation that was less like giving up and more like acclimating, with grace and good humor, to whatever life brought her.
Pym made the lives of socially marginal women like herself matter, in spite and even because of their mundanity. She imbued their lives with grace, dignity, relevance—even a sort of quiet heroism. In 1943, when Pym was serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, she wrote in her diary, “On Friday evening I was having supper when Marion Booth, a very attractive looking MT driver came and sat by me and we talked about German and Rilke and the necessity of hanging on to the things that matter—painting for her, writing and literature for me and music, of course. This is important, otherwise you will lose yourself completely…‘it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.’”
Throughout her life, Pym was determined to be herself: to keep writing despite fourteen years of rejection, to keep falling in love though never marrying, to keep up her spirits while dying of cancer. “Still struggling on—perhaps a little better!” she wrote in a 1979 Christmas card to Philip Larkin, several weeks before her death. “The stoicism, courage and endurance that she gave to her heroines were qualities that she herself had in abundance. She also shared their vulnerability (to the end her eyes were those of an anxious girl), together with their ability to make the best of things…” wrote Hazel Holt.
Despite their limited scope, Pym’s novels possess qualities of universality and timelessness that transcend gender, class, and geographic location. Everyone experiences love, loss, rejection, loneliness, and sorrow, and everyone can appreciate the simple beauty of life’s most ordinary comforts: the first melty bite of macaroni and cheese; the hot milky drink before bed. “The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things,” thinks Less Than Angels’ Catherine, “the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” As Alexander McCall Smith wrote in The Guardian in 2008, “although Pym’s novels are about as far away as possible from engagement with the great political and social issues, they are powerful reminders that one of the great and proper concerns of literature is that motley cluster of small concerns that makes up our day-to-day lives.”
Pym’s heroines defined themselves by what they had rather than what they did not. Pym reminds us that one needn’t have children to count—nor go to war, run a business, or hold public office, for that matter. It is the small, ordinary experiences that lend most lives their meaning.
On the last page of Quartet in Autumn, a novel about four aging office workers nearing retirement which was published only three years before she died, Pym wrote, “it made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change.” These words sum up their author’s unquenchable optimism. Even when faced with obscurity, illness, and death, she never lost the ability to marvel at life’s potential.
Raina Lipsitz writes and edits short stories about herself and others at imaginarymoney.com. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Brooklyn Rail, Buffalo Spree, Free Inquiry, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, and The Yale Review of Books. She holds a Master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Columbia University and is a staff writer at Catalyst, a nonprofit seeking to advance women in business.