Barbara Pym’s commentary on the undetected lives of women creates a kind of sub-text for the female experience of mid twentieth century England. In each room we enter with her we notice that something is different; the light does not shine on the actions of a central male character. It shines on a woman, a woman who is completely unaware of its beam.
On the end of a bookshelf in my office there is a yellowing paperback. Sitting there, as if still waiting to be wrapped up and posted. For four years it caused a queasy spasm of guilt to pass over me every time I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye. This usually happened when I looked up from my computer, pleased with something I had just thought, some words I had just found. The pleasure, that little moment of chest thumping, was immediately dispatched by the sight of that yellowing paperback. I would quickly turn away, but not before the Guilt of The Unreturned Book overwhelmed me.
You know how it is. Somebody kindly lends you a book of which they are fond. Not necessarily an expensive book, but the unwritten rule of readers is, if somebody lends you a book they really like – It Has To be Returned.
In this case the book was an old paperback bought secondhand from a pile of unwanted texts which were quietly lingering in the back of some Oxfam shop.
I first met the book’s owner at the business end of a plume of smoke which was issuing from her rollie as she hid behind a huge camellia bush. We were in the conservatory of a large country house in Wales where we had gathered to entertain the festival audience with poetry readings and stories. Barbara, Jones not Pym, owned the house and her aunt was staying over. She was one of those women that you just keep looking at. Eighty three years old, slender and dark, with a glossy assymetric bob, sorry, I have an eye for the superficial, she was sitting cross legged on a Lloyd Loom chair, no mean feat in itself, wearing a tunic, leggings and glittery flats. On her knee was an open paperback. I was entranced. I wanted to be her when I was eighty years old.
As we talked, I understood that the book on her knee had taken a deal of searching out. For the paperback was An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym, and Barbara’s aunt had been on a quest for many years during the time when nobody read Barbara Pym. She had been determined to collect every one of the Barbara Pym novels in their earliest paperback format. She told me that she loved to sniff them. To take in the aroma of times past, with a mustiness undercut by powder from somebody’s dressing table or a scrap of paper, a bill, forgotten by the original owner. An Unsuitable Attachment was the last one on her list.
So when Barbara’s aunt offered to let me borrow this book, I accepted the gift with the full realization that It Had To be Returned. And, reader, I didn’t return it. In fact, I never actually met Barbara’s aunt again. She died four years after I borrowed her book. I had gone abroad and she had died elegantly, of cancer, in the arms of her surgeon lover with a candle on her bedroom table and a bottle of good red wine by the bedside. With perfect timing, the night of her death, with his collusion, she had signed herself out of her hospice in York and taken a taxi to his flat.
As he said at her funeral, she was remarkable. And it was after that windswept funeral day that my guilt took on a new form. Less urgent but somehow deeper, requiring absolution.
You see, I met Barbara’s aunt once, I borrowed a secondhand book from her and since her death, to in some way absolve myself, I have collected all of Barbara Pym’s novels - in, of course, their earliest paperback format. Prising them out from under heaps of Wilbur Smith in church fairs. Or rooting for them in cardboard boxes at jumble sales. Since reading that first yellowing paperback, I have read every single novel written by Barbara Pym. Sometimes in paperbacks whose dry glueless pages fall apart as I read.
So Barbara’s aunt gave me much more than a book. She gave me Barbara Pym. And what a gift.
Barbara Pym’s commentary on the undetected lives of women creates a kind of sub-text for the female experience of mid twentieth century England. In each room we enter with her we notice that something is different; the light does not shine on the actions of a central male character. Although he seems to exist, he is gently superceded in our interest by … a woman. A woman who is unaware of the authorial spotlight upon her. In that way, Barbara Pym challenged the centrality of the male experience and allowed women to take a deep breath in the open air of fiction. On Monday night, 7th October, at the Portico Library, perhaps Manchester Literature Festival will introduce some new readers to the delights of Barbara Pym, and there will be glossy new paperbacks for the work of a woman who now has her rightful place in the canon of English literature.
Outside, leaning against the wall having a drag on her rollie, will be the shade of Barbara’s aunt. She will be smiling.