return to religion-online

Pym’s Cup

by Jean Caffey Lyles

Ms. Lyles is Protestant editor for the Religious News Service in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 21-28, 1986, p. 519. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some day an earnest young scholar in pursuit of a suitably narrow research topic may turn to the works of British writer Barbara Pym and compile an exhaustive index of the occasions when pots of tea are brewed and consumed in her 11 novels.

Such a project might well have appealed to Pym’s own sense of the comic. The centrality of the tea urn in Church of England parish life and the ability of scholars to fashion whole careers out of a tiny scrap of information or a corner of a field of study are themes which appear again and again in her detailed and witty portraits of little communities of Anglicans and anthropologists.

I discovered the cozy world of Barbara Pym about five years ago, in a stack of bargain books. It would be hard to find one of her novels on the remainder table today, for the small cult of Pym readers in the U.S. has grown, though she is still not as widely known as she deserves to be.

Her novels are addictive -- as palatable as a feather-light sponge cake baked by a canon’s widow for the dessert table at the church bazaar in one of Pym’s parishes. But inside the spun-sugar consistency is a tart or bittersweet filling. For the spinsters who populate Pym’s novels, romance may end ruefully, or never get off the ground.

Readers who have spent their share of time hanging around churches -- even non-Anglican, American ones -- will find something familiar in Pym’s truthful fictions: the suspicion of "Romish" influences; the pettiness of the disputes that erupt in parish councils; the resistance to new hymnals and other innovations; the tendency for bazaars and "jumble sales" (British for "rummage sales") to become one of the chief ends of the church rather than a means; the territorial disputes over who shall polish the brass on the lectern or arrange the altar flowers; the romanticizing of African missionaries "doing splendid work among the natives"; and the eternal debates over whether "high church" or "low church" is better. (Pym apparently shared her characters’ resistance to change. In a letter discussing new liturgies she wrote, "Oh, pray for the Church of England," and she once contemplated writing a novel on "the decay of the Anglican Church." In 1963 she included Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s book Honest to God in a list of disasters in a year of "violence, death and blows.") Pym’s world is inhabited by an eccentric cast of winsome curates, pompous vicars and canons, enthusiastic students, vague professors, badly dressed clergy wives, aging men who live with their cranky mothers, bored civil servants, crotchety librarians, "splendid spinsters," dotty retirees, professed agnostics, titled nobility, "distressed gentlewomen" and discreet homosexual couples.

Virtually all her books are available in Dutton hardcover editions and Harper & Row paperbacks -- from Some Tame Gazelle, which she began writing in the 1930s, to A Few Green Leaves, which she completed in 1979, shortly before her death. A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (Dutton) , edited by Pym’s literary executor Hazel Holt and by her sister, Hilary Pym, was issued in 1984, satisfying the curiosity of readers who had previously known almost nothing about the author except what could be gleaned from book-jackets and autobiographical hints in the novels.

Pym was born in 1913 in Oswestry, England, into a home comfortable enough to have domestic help. Her father, a lawyer, sang bass in the parish choir, and her mother was the assistant organist. Thus, her familiarity with the life of Anglican parishes began in childhood, when her family’s social life included vicars, curates and organists; she would sometimes sit on the organ bench beside her mother during services.

At 12, she went to an all-girls boarding school, where she was an average student, but noted for her poems and parodies. In 1931 she went to Oxford to study English. In 1932 she began the first in a series of diaries she was to continue for the rest of her life.

Though one would not guess it from the novels, Pym was not prim, at least not in her youth. Some diary pages had to be burned or ripped out. In one surviving entry she records that "Jockie" (novelist Robert Liddell, Harvey’s housemate at Oxford) "came in and caught us reading ‘Samson Agonistes’ in bed with nothing on." (The several sly allusions to "Samson Agonistes" in her novels may have been intended to amuse friends who were in on this story.)

Pym was deeply hurt when Harvey married a Danish woman in 1937, but he remained her lifelong friend. For a time she wrote entertaining letters to him, his wife and Liddell in a style that Holt says parodied Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith. And she got her gentle revenge on Harvey by including in her novels a self important archdeacon who ‘takes his texts from minor poets, preaches sermons his congregation doesn’t understand, and overuses Harvey’s favorite descriptive phrase, "remarkably fine."

Her novel-writing began at Oxford, but publishers initially failed to show an interest. "Be more wicked, if necessary," her agent told her in response to Some Tame Gazelle, in which she and her sister Hilary appear as two aging spinsters living together in a village, and the rest of her Oxford circle is transformed into members of an Anglican parish.

World War II interrupted her writing. She worked in a government censorship office and lived near Bristol in a household of BBC employees and their families. During this time she had a brief but intense love affair with the estranged husband of one of her housemates and close friends. When the aftermath of the affair became too painful, she joined the Wrens (Women’s Royal Navy Service) and remained with them for the duration of the war, serving in Southhampton and then Naples. Her off-duty hours were filled with rather more social activity than she wanted. A fleeting romance with a naval officer provided the basis for a memorable character in Excellent Women. "I suppose every man I have ever known will see himself as Rocky," she said of the character who spent the war in Naples arranging the admiral’s social life and being "charming to a lot of dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms."

Pym felt that her "Wrennish façade" was false and that she was out of her element in the service. She wrote, "I’m doing my best, trying to see the funny side," and tried to view it as "a great chunk of experience, an extraordinary bit of life" useful for her writing. And as always, she looked for churches to visit -- for worship, architecture or atmosphere. But she missed the music, intellectual stimulation and friendships she had had in the BBC household. At age 31, after yet another romantic entanglement, she began to realize that she probably would not marry. She wrote to Harvey, "It looks as if you and Jock may get your way and have me as Miss Pym all my life."

After the war, she went to work at the International African Institute as an assistant editor of anthropological journals, seminar papers and monographs. She was to spend the rest of her career there, writing novels only in her leisure time.

Pym never went to Africa and did not have much interest in the continent, but she was fascinated by the anthropologists in whose writings and quirky personalities she discovered a rich lode of comic material. Holt, who was her colleague at the institute, recalls that she would create fictions about anthropologists based on the few facts she had about them. It became hard "to remember what was real and what was not," Holt said. She quotes Pym as saying once: "I couldn’t ask W. if his mother was better because I couldn’t remember if we’d invented her."

Pym shared a home with her sister Hilary and various cats that occasionally showed up in her novels. One was the model for Faustina, surely the most finicky and temperamental church-related cat in literature. Another, Tom Boilkin, she dubbed "president of the Young Neuters Club."

In 1950 Some Tame Gazelle was finally published. Five more novels followed between 1950 and 1961. During this period her journals were filled with observations of life -- particularly Anglican parish life -- that furnished the raw material for the novels. "The distinction between animals’ and humans’ dishes," she remarked, "is a very narrow one. One feels that when we aren’t there, there is no distinction." In another entry she writes: "It seems rather dangerous, after we have been praying for the unity of the churches, to have a hymn by [Cardinal] Newman" (an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism)

After her publishing successes, it came as a cruel blow when her publisher rejected her seventh novel in 1963, and no other publisher would take it. Her fiction seemed too mild for a market in which Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer sold 60,000 copies on its first day of publication. "I wonder what could possibly be too daring to publish nowadays?" she wondered. Thinking of her own brand of fiction, she wrote, "The position of the unmarried woman, unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the reader of modern fiction." But she continued to write, for herself and her friends, and she insisted on creating her own kind of book -- in which people kept all their clothes on and lovers seldom went further than a chaste kiss. Her publishing drought continued until the Times Literary Supplement carried a feature in January 1977 in which she was the only living writer cited twice by prominent literary figures naming the most "underrated" writers of the century. (One of her eminent fans was the poet Philip Larkin, who died last year; she also admired his work and in her later pears they frequently exchanged letters.)

Pym was then rediscovered by the British reading public and she gained new popularity in the U.S., where some of her books began to be studied in universities. Her out-of-print works became available, and two more were published before cancer, which she had first contracted in 1971, slowed her down. She managed to finish one more book -- A Few Green Leaves -- before her death in January 1980. That work and three others, plus the letters and diaries, have been published posthumously.

Pym’s novels should be read in the order they were written; otherwise one misses a Pym trademark -- oblique references to characters in earlier stories. These references are a kind of private joke, and sometimes a way to tie up loose ends of an old plot or announce a marriage or a death. Referring to this practice in a letter to Larkin, she wrote, "Perhaps really one should take such a very minor character that only the author recognises it, like a kind of superstition or charm." Each of her books stands on its own, but their linking by these offhand references to characters the reader recalls from another context gives her whole body of fiction a special texture -- rather like the kinship tables to which her anthropologists are so devoted.

Church fund-raising events provide another, seemingly inexhaustible source of humor for Pym. The annual bazaar is always the first Saturday in December and thus "not a moveable feast." In Excellent Women, Mildred, reflecting on the fact that Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches invite the others to their sales of old clothing, observes, "It’s rather nice to think of churches being united through jumble sales." The anthropologist Rupert Stonebird, a major figure in An Unsuitable Attachment, finds that his conscience, buried successfully at age 16, revives to plague him "not about the fundamentals of belief and morality but about such comparative trivialities as whether or not one should attend the church bazaar."

Pym also has an eye for the appurtenances of wealth in the church. In one Anglican clergy residence where meat is given up during Lent, the cook, a man of exquisite tastes and delicate sensibilities, revises his repertoire of dishes with scampi, octopus and escargot. And in another parish, a priest has bouillabaisse flown in from Marseilles for Ash Wednesday. In a similarly self-abnegating spirit, one vicar explains his attachment to a wealthy parish, saying in a tone of resignation, "My particular cross is to be a ‘fashionable preacher,’ as they say . . . somebody must minister to the rich."

Church squabbles also occupy a significant place in Pym’s world. "Why does contact with the church seem to make people so petty?" asks an observer in A Glass of Blessings after one server gets miffed because someone else has mistakenly worn his custom-made cassock rather than one of the off-the-rack garments. And when Jane, the vicar’s wife in Jane and Prudence, speaks out bluntly in a church council meeting debating what picture to put on the cover of the parish magazine, her husband thinks, "There was, after all, something to be said for the celibacy of the clergy."

The Church Times, the Church of England’s newspaper, is a frequent target of Pymmish wit. On one occasion, a hostess offers pages of the publication in lieu of toilet tissue. Nevertheless, the paper’s editor wrote to Pym saying that though there was ordinarily not space for reviews of fiction, he planned to review one of her novels, "if only because I had given so many splendid free commercials for the Church Times," she said.

Pym’s notebooks and novels are also full of puckish references to hymns. In No Fond Return of Love, Dulcie Mainwaring sings "All Things Bright and Beautiful" in a "loud indignant voice," waiting for the lines, "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate;/God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate." But the verse has been left out, and she sits down feeling "cheated of her indignation." In a journal entry, Pym notes that George Herbert’s "King of Glory, King of Peace" is "very English, like a damp, overgrown churchyard." A city parishioner in one of her books notices the "only country words rhyme with God – clod, sod, trod."

Pym’s sharp eye and ear take note as well of the sparks flying out of the incense pot, the acolyte tripping over his cassock and falling down the stairs, the shrill sound of the church telephone heard above the organ, the cigarette lighter used to kindle the new fire of Easter in the dark church on Holy Saturday. And she finds love blossoming amid "the smell of damp mackintoshes" which seems to pervade "perhaps all parish halls everywhere."

A great deal of tea is drunk in those parish halls, but the favored drink of Pym’s spinsters, especially when under stress or seeking to induce sleep, is Ovaltine. Belinda (in Some Tame Gazelle) , who is determined to be reticent, becomes more talkative under the influence of this nourishing milky drink; "the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue." In the later novels, where broad comedy gives way to subtle irony, the consumption of sherry and gin increases. In An Unsuitable Attachment, one of the characters thinks how much livelier the church would be with fewer cups of tea and more glasses of wine.

Odd bits of data from the world of anthropology find their way into the novels. It is reported that members of one tribe "relish putrescent meat," and that another group will eat "anything edible except the hyena." Pym is amused that "the giving and receiving of offprints" (the extra copies of scholarly articles sent to authors) seems to create a "special relationship"; some writers lavish them on friends "like Christmas cards."

Despite her vivid commentary on parish life, we learn little from Pym’s works about her own theology. The journal and letters suggest, however, that she amused her friends with her cheerful spirit and wry observations to the last, and that her faith sustained her as she pondered the mysteries of life and death.

If there is a thread that runs through her body of work, it is simply the conviction that all of us need someone to love, and that the local church, an all-too-human institution of flawed and fussy people, is nonetheless a community that connects fallible human beings to one another and to the One they lose sight of amid the wet mackintoshes, the jumble-sale clothing, the tea urns and the giant squash on the altar for the harvest festival. Pym’s unique way of expressing her love was to entertain us, while reminding us, gently but pointedly, of our foibles.


Viewed 11088 times.