A Very Private Eye is a collection of Barbara Pym's letters and journals edited by her sister, Hilary, and her friend and literary executrix, Hazel Holt. As the spinoff from my online Trollope group (called otherlit) has been reading our way through Pym's novels, I've been reading my way through this collection, trying to stay at about the period in her life when the book we are reading was published.
In about 1970 Pym's publishers decided that no one would buy novels like hers and despite the help of friends in the literary world none of her books were accepted for publication between then and 1977.
She tried to stay hopeful for a time and continued writing but eventually as the years went by her writing slowed and she became depressed. "Every now and then I feel gloomy about it all and wonder if anybody will want to publish anything of mine again."
Writing had been the heart of her life. She always carried a small journal with her and noted little scenes in tea shops or standing in a line for a bus or at a lecture and worked these things into her novels. She still kept notes but fewer and with not much hope that she would be writing a novel into which to weave these observations.
For those of us who love her novels and find the author herself a charming and attractive woman it is heartbreaking to read of those years, her occasional mention of publishers who have returned her manuscripts, the fact that she has put away a nearly finished novel as unpublishable. It is especially hard to read of her slowing down and writing less and less. In a world where the best seller list was composed of John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, and Robert Ludlum it was difficult to sell a subtle, sophisticated, and dryly witty novel no matter how well written.
All of this changed suddenly in January of 1977 when a Times Literary Supplement article asking famous literary figures to name the most underrated novelists of the time. Only one author was mentioned twice, by Philip Larkin and by Lord David Cecil: Barbara Pym. Immediately publishers wanted to see her manuscripts, the BBC wanted to interview her, photographers called to make appointments to photograph her. Her next novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for a Booker. Finally the worth of her work was recognized and she became well known. It was worthwhile to write again.
As we read these pages of the memoir, we know that she was going to die soon and would have very little time to enjoy this resurgence. She shined up some novels written earlier and she wrote another novel, but didn't have time to do a second draft before she died of cancer in January 1980.
The book is full of vignettes as she goes to tea with Lord David or attends church with a friend from college years. She says in a journal note, "I find it is pleasanter to observe these things rather than actually participate in them." She was an astute observer.
Before re-reading Pym's novels one after the other I hadn't really noticed all of the humor and the satire and the occasional cynicism in her work. We have just finished the last of her novels published before the dry years. Her darker novels are ahead of us.