Book of the Week, non-fiction, reviews

Book of the Week: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym

After a string of Christmas-themed recommendations for BotW, I’m starting the new year with a non-fiction pick, and it’s a title that you may be rather familiar with as it’s been on the ongoing list for quite some time – but don’t hold that against it. Why then has it taken me so long to read? Well firstly because it is long (500+ pages!) and secondly because non-fiction requires proper concentration and for me to be in the right mindset – which has been difficult recently but in 2021 in general – as previously discussed.

Anyway, Paula Byrne’s latest book is a biography of the author Barbara Pym. Pym wrote a series of novels about everyday women in the middle of the twentieth century, was briefly acclaimed, then forgotten and then rediscovered in the years immediately before her death in 1980. If you haven’t read any of them, then you really should – she’s been compared to Jane Austen. She was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for Quartet in Autumn, but I’ve mostly read her earlier books – my favourite of hers Excellent Women, which I have in a rather delightful Virago Designer Hardback edition.

After growing up in Shropshire, Barbara Pym went up to Oxford in the early 1930s. There she threw herself into student life – and into love. She travelled to Germany in the 1930s, was a Wren during the war and then worked for years as an assistant editor for a journal of anthropology. Her novels often feature anthropologists, as well as vicars – whether she’s writing about London’s bedsit land or English country life. In later life, she was friends with Philip Larkin – which in part led to her rediscovery in the late 1970s

Using Pym’s own diaries and papers, Byrne has written a comprehensive re-examination of Pym’s life piecing together her relationships, friendships and love affairs as well as her career in publishing. It’s a fascinating insight into the life behind the writer – and how her personal life bled into her novels. Considering that she never married and that her books focus on unmarried or in some way frustrated women, you may be surprised by what you discover about her. Two of Byrnes other books – Kick (about Kathleen Kennedy) and Mad World (about Evelyn Waugh) are on my keeper shelf of history books already and this would join them, if it wasn’t an ebook! And if I haven’t already won you over with my thoughts, it was on the Times’ list of best books of 2021 too.

As an added bonus for me, given my current Wimsey phase, Pym was an undergraduate at St Hilda’s just a couple of years before Gaudy Night is set. Through her experiences you can get a glimpse of what the students of Shrewsbury College might have been getting up to out of sight of the dons.

My copy of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym came via NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of the hardback fairly easily – Foyles have it available as click and collect at a lot of their stores and will even knock a couple of quid off the cover price if you order it via their website. If the hardback price is a bit rich for you, then I’m so behind hand with my NetGalley list that it’s actually out in paperback in April, so you could hang fire for that. Or of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook.

Happy Reading!

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