Barbara Pym in the 1930s

Novelists’ careers take different paths, and sometimes don’t look much like careers at all. It’s true that some start publishing between 25 and 35, and write a novel respectably every two or three years until they die, like Kingsley Amis. Others don’t start until they are 60, like Penelope Fitzgerald, or stop abruptly without warning, like Henry Green, or write one novel and no more, like Harper Lee. Inspiration, or interest, comes and goes, and both the audience and the industry will have their wilful way with creativity. The ultimate aim of a novel, to be read with pleasure decades after its creator’s death, is reached in tortuous ways. Who in the 1960s would have thought that by the 21st century one of the most admired American novelists would be John Edward Williams, the author of Stoner — or put money on Barbara Pym having any claim on posterity?

A cup of tea is poured; a character wonders ‘why Father Ransome couldn’t live at the clergy house’; a spinster chooses a rather too daring shade of lipstick for herself (‘Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire’); love is shyly offered, and not returned. Pym’s world is very strongly her own, with as particular a flavour as E.F. Benson’s Tilling, or P.G.Wodehouse’s Blandings. We think we know what to expect. But then things take an unforeseen turn. A young woman in 1955 is living with her boyfriend; a handsome man in 1958 is unavailable because of the prior claims of a model called Keith; an elderly woman starves to death; suburban life is analysed according to anthropological principles; characters in Kensington believe that the birds of the city are plotting to kill them (‘She handed me a cutting headed OWL BITES WOMAN’).

The territory is unique and unmistakable, and a real aficionado can recognise the author from a page, or even a sentence. (‘I foresaw the surprising card that might accompany the flowers: “With love and deepest sympathy from Wilmet and Rodney Forsyth and Wilfred J. Bason.”’) They are more than idiosyncratic, however; they have a real technical mastery. A Glass of Blessings, in particular, is a little marvel of skill; a proper social panorama, with 77 named characters, but told in the first person. The miracle is the naturalness with which Wilmet moves through different worlds — Wolfenden gays, church, cocktail parties. When you read this, or the splendid Excellent Women, next to more celebrated novelists of the early 1950s, such as Pamela Hansford Johnson, it is hard to see how such ability and observation could be overlooked.

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