From 1950 through 1961, Barbara Pym novels were published about every two years. Her low-key stories were about "excellent women," pillars of the Church of England, unmarried and satisfied to stay that way. Her audience was not large but it was devoted.
But in the 1960s she found publishers no longer willing to publish her novels. They weren't exciting enough, not enough suspense (no suspense at all, really), not enough sex and violence (no violence and very subtle sexual situations.) For more than a decade she continued to write, or try to write, her subtle and charming books, but in the face of publisher denials she was depressed and unable to work.
Then in 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked prominent literary figures to name the most underrated writers of the 20th century. And both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin named Pym. Almost immediately she was inundated with letters from publishers wanting to publish her books, interviewers wanting to put her on the radio and TV, stories about her in the press, visits from well-known figures, all the adulation she could ask for.
She was one of those excellent women herself, supportive of the Church of England, very high church, and with her sister, with whom she lived for many years, an active figure in her village social life. One assumes she has gone to Anglican heaven where she is continuing to write her novels, which will be waiting for those of us who arrive their in our turn. (Those of us who go elsewhere can always get her books on interlibrary loan.)
For the last year the Yahoo otherlit group, a spin-off from the Yahoo Trollope group of which I've been a member for the last decade, has been reading Pym's novels, in order. We are now reading Crampton Hodnet, published in 1985, and will soon undertake An Academic Question.
The rewards of reading Pym's novels, especially reading them slowly and in the order of their publication, are many. She is wry and sly, amusing and sometimes almost heartbreaking. She has a number of subjects to which she returns in every novel, including food (I wish I had her recipe for cauliflower cheese), clothes, and obscure English poets, many of which she first encountered as a student at Oxford in the 1930s.
Pym's characters frequently quote little-known poets and almost always the quotations are just a bit off. They don't mean what the character thinks they mean. In our world of Google and other search engines we can identify the poets and find the entire poems and watch as she skewers the character, the poet, and the poem. But when her books were first published the reader would have needed Pym's knowledge of these obscure works in order to understand what she was doing. As I said, she is subtle and sly.
Beginning tomorrow, Thomas at the book blog, My Porch, will begin Pym Week during which he and other bloggers will post about Pym. It looks like fun and I encourage you to stop by and see what's going on there.