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Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949-1962: the Writer as Hidden Observer

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by Orna Raz

With its pink linen-clad cover, this publication from the little-known (to me, at any rate) Edwin Mellen Press presents an attractive, if slightly old-fashioned impression. The publisher, so its rather pedestrian website tells us, "conceives, publishes, and markets advanced research in the humanities and social sciences", a laudable aim.

Purely in terms of its appearance, the book is a production of which Barbara Pym would undoubtedly have approved. I am less sure that she would have approved of the increased willingness of literary critics to treat and analyse her novels "seriously". She would probably have been surprised to find herself described as a social commentator. For Pym readers, however, there is undiluted pleasure in the sight of an entire volume devoted to a critique of the popular novelist’s work, especially by a distinguished academic like Dr Orna Raz of the Rishon LeZion College in Israel.

It is partly with this in mind that I had to raise an eyebrow when I saw the book’s cover price, which puts it way beyond the reach of those who would most appreciate it. Libraries will, of course, buy it, but only academic libraries. As an author myself, I cannot quibble at the idea of a writer being paid royalties commensurate with the effort she has put into the work. Yet I can’t help thinking that, for this price, the book could have been thicker and the proof-reading of a higher standard (there is a glaring typesetting error on the very first page of the introduction).

As the Americans have made a much better job of keeping this neglected author’s work in print than the British one, it would be churlish to complain about their use of their own preferred spelling. Yet once again I can’t help thinking that Barbara Pym would not have relished seeing spellings she would herself never have dreamed of using ("favorite programs") printed in quotation marks, giving them a false authenticity.

Anyone who has actually read Pym knows that she uses nearly as many literary allusions as T S Eliot; but the allusions to contemporary society and current affairs generally go unnoticed. The great service Orna Raz does for us is to point these out, and they are legion: references to religious and political change, topics such as the welfare state, immigration, homosexuality and social unrest – many of these integrated so seamlessly into the novels that the author herself may not always have been aware of them. The subtle nature of her art is underlined in Dr Raz’s chapter on Anglo-Catholicism, where she shows how Pym shades in her characters by the extent of their involvement in the Anglo-Catholic movement. "Daring and Romish" is a fashion statement for some, and an expression of individuality for others.

There is evidence, also, of Pym’s very wide reading, not only of fiction and verse but of instructional and other non-fictional works with a contemporary relevance. Dr Raz demonstrates beyond doubt that Barbara Pym, far from living in a cloistered fantasy world, had an enquiring mind and made a point of keeping abreast of social trends in the outside world. Perhaps she became less so in the latter part of her writing career, which is doubtless one of the reasons this study concentrates on the years up to 1963 – the point at which Cape declined to publish An Unsuitable Attachment, banishing its author to fifteen years in the literary wilderness.

To reinforce her argument, Dr Raz identifies the subjects that make up the meat of the early novels, and looks at Pym’s treatment of these: relationships, particularly those between males and females; the position of women in society; the changes of lifestyle and expectation that come with advancing age. Orna Raz has much in common with her subject, for, like Barbara Pym herself, she is a "hidden observer" and a very skilful one. Her analysis of Pym’s work deserves far more space than I am able to give it here. Dr John Brannigan, in his foreword, generously gives way to her persuasive arguments, which have won him round from his previous cynicism over Pym’s relevance for the 21st century reader. "Raz," he says, "provides the answers here not as to why we should read Pym, but why we should read Pym better." I fully concur.


Buy this book from Amazon

ISBN 0 7734 5387 3
Edwin Mellen Press, 2007
213pp, hardback
Retail price 69.95 ($109.95)

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Review by Deborah Fisher

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