Barbara Pym. Photograph by Mark Garson via
Although her novels were well-received and regularly published from 1950 to 1963, and although she continued to produce high-quality work at a steady pace between 1963 and 1977, Pym was devastated by her inability to publish at all throughout the latter period. Her friends, family, and former publisher assured her that her work was rejected during this period not because its quality had declined, but because its subject matter was out of step with the times—the world of her novels was insulated from the sex, drugs, and social revolution then capturing the public’s imagination. “I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again,” she wrote in 1970. Two years later she noted in her diary, “The position of the unmarried woman—unless, of course, she is somebody’s mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction” (a sentiment she would later attribute to Quartet in Autumn’s Letty, substituting “writer” for “readers”).
Pym was rediscovered and her career briefly revived in 1977—fourteen long years after she had last been published and only three years before she died. That was the year in which Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil characterized her, in the January 21st issue of The Times Literary Supplement, as the most underrated writer of the last seventy-five years. (Pym was the only writer then living who was so characterized by two different respondents to the TLS poll.) “The six novels of Barbara Pym published between 1950 and 1961…give an unrivaled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England,” wrote Larkin. “She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life.” According to Lord Cecil David, Pym’s “unpretentious, subtle, accomplished novels, especially Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings, are for me the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years.”
Publication of Pym’s novels resumed immediately following these endorsements, beginning with Quartet in Autumn, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and continuing with The Sweet Dove Died, which, although previously rejected by a number of publishers, was published to critical acclaim in 1978. Pym died of breast cancer two years later, at the age of 66. Several previously unpublished works were published after her death. More than thirty years after this long overdue renaissance, at a time when literary success is even more closely tied to marketability than it was in the 1960s, Pym—modest, female, and without a contemporary champion—has again faded into obscurity.