I’ve finished another of the books that took me into October (don’t look for me finishing those Icelandic sagas soon, to be honest!) and another of Ali’s books. I apparently borrowed this from her around a year ago when I was helping move her books around when she moved into her new flat! It’s also part of my TBR project, which I’m still recording while I finish it off. This biography of Barbara Pym, a favourite author of mine, had slightly mixed reviews, with some people finding it quite twee. I picked it up thinking I might think so, too (and it would be an easy DNF and win rather than a 600-pager to read) but I accepted the notes of quirkiness and appreciated its adherence to the sources and was soon sucked in to the detail and narrative. Ali’s own review is here, and Jacquiwine’s is here (first of a couple of linked posts); I’m sure other bloggers I follow have read and reviewed, so do share in the comments with a link if you have.

Paula Byrne – “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym”

(September 2021, a loan from Ali)

Pym … wanted her life to be told, and her archive to be held at one of the greatest libraries in the world: the Bodleian. In her journals, she make interventions to the ‘Gentle Reader of the Bodleian’ who might be writing her life. That she cut out pages of her journals and destroyed sensitive materials also suggest that she desired literary posterity, but was also afraid of some of the darker aspects of her history being revealed. (p. 609)

So there is a bit of tweeness or archness in Byrne’s use of “Pym” to refer to her subject and also in the chapter headings, which all start “In Which …” in the manner of an 18th century narrative. But the actual work is free from twee and sticks very closely to the sources – but all the sources, so it doesn’t miss out bits that aren’t quite so prim and proper or Excellent Woman-ish and doesn’t gloss over various things, as the previous works, Hazel Holt’s “A Lot to Ask” and the 1980s collection of diary entries and letters, “A Very Private Eye” of necessity and kindness did. “Barbara in the Bodleian“, which was published a bit later, did have some of the revelations here but concentrated more on reactions to the novels. So this hefty tome does bring a lot to the table and makes an excellent addition to the books on Barbara Pym.

I’m not sure how much I can add to the reviews that came out closer to the time of publication. We are taken carefully through Barbara’s life from her family background to her student days, her working life, life with her sister, the wilderness years and her republication and second go at her writing career through her diaries and letters. She comes across as more liberated than in previous books, I think, whirling around love affairs, although her sad propensity for unrequited love is still a strong thread, and it feels like some of the men definitely used and abused her a bit, making her think there was more to a relationship than there was. Byrne does reminds us how Hazel Holt and others downplayed certain aspects when writing of Barbara nearer to her lifetime, not criticising, just mentioning. The Nazi boyfriend is examined in great detail, as Barbara went to Germany several times and spent time with him at a time when she’d have been expected to know what was happening – in her defence, she expunged any German interest from the drafts of her novels and made a point of decrying what happened later.

Of course I enjoyed little details that linked to my own other interests – at one point she reads Auden and MacNeice’s “Letters from Iceland“, quite a niche book, and there are a few mentions of Iris Murdoch, including Barbara’s meeting with her and John Bayley with Paul Binding which Binding was kind enough to tell me about at the Barbara Pym Conference nearly a decade ago! And I had a Bookish Beck Book Serendipity moment (which probably wasn’t that surprising, reading biographies of two almost-contemporaries close together) of encountering descriptions of appearing on Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. Another contemporary moment was provided when I read that Barbara attended the lying in state of King George VI in 1952.

After the necessary sad chapter of decline and death, Byrne sensibly talks about the writing of this book itself, and shares how she mined the archive and her intentions in writing it. As I said at the start, a great addition to the Pym biographical canon and it’s made me want to go back to the novels.


This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 4 Book 23/28 – I’m in the middle of books 24, 25 and 26 and Book 28 is the Dave Grohl book itself.