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No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church

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edited by Hazel K Bell


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ISBN 0 9543316 6 4
HKB Press in association with the Barbara Pym Society
115pp, paperback
Retail price 7.50



There are two main categories of self-publishing: one is practised by individuals who, for one reason or another, have been unable to interest a commercial publisher in their work; the other is normally the province of societies or organisations with specialist material they want to share. The former category is seldom profitable; the second may well make a modest profit, if only because its readership has been established in advance.

No Soft Incense: Barbara Pym and the Church is of the second type. Assuming that the publishers, the Barbara Pym Society, have been realistic in terms of their print run, success is almost guaranteed. This is the first work of its kind we’ve reviewed, and I hope it won’t be the last. No Soft Incense is an excellent example of self-publishing turned to advantage. A commercial publisher probably would not have looked twice at this collection of literary essays, mostly written by members of the Barbara Pym Society (one of the most successful literary societies in existence in the UK today).

Despite the recognition Pym has received in the past 25 years, only a few of her works are currently in print. Critical studies are most likely to be of interest to Pym devotees, and may not have a wide circulation outside the Society itself. However, by getting together with a group who have experience of the publishing industry, the Society has found a way of making these detailed and intensively-researched articles available to their intended audience at a reasonable price.

The articles are almost all based on conference papers delivered to the Barbara Pym Society at conferences in recent years, with the consequent benefit of a more lively style than the kind of essays intended only for the printed page. They are grouped around a theme – the Church – that is central to the works of Barbara Pym. However, in case anyone unfamiliar with Pym’s writing supposes this to be a recipe for solemnity, it should be added that it is difficult to read any of these articles without laughing out loud at least once. The credit for that lies with Barbara Pym herself. Who else could have enabled the evocatively-named Father Thames to include this plea in the parish magazine: "Isn’t there some good woman who would feel drawn to do really Christian work and look after Father Bode and myself? We can just about boil an egg between us!" In the end, the priests’ creator ensures that they end up with a male housekeeper, in A Glass of Blessings, a 1958 novel that is not afraid to include both role reversal and homosexuality amongst its subject matter.

Students of English literature will not be tempted to think that the theme of "the Church" in the works of a single novelist is inadequate as the subject of a whole volume of criticism; there is more than enough material in the works of Pym, who was prolific by the standards of the literary world in the days before the invention of the PC. As one might expect, with such a variety of contributors, the standard of criticism, as well as the ability to interest the reader/listener, varies; the content ranges from the highbrow to the populist. Contributors include the crime novelist, Kate Charles, an Oxford undergraduate, Triona Adams, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gabriel Myers, and an Austrian academic, Eleanore Biber. It must have required some effort on the part of editor, Hazel Bell, to draw them all together in an acceptable order. The result is admirable.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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Deirdre Bryan-Brown (left), Chairman of the Barbara Pym Society, with Triona Adams, one of the contributors to No Soft Incense
Photo by Yvonne Cocking