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Eleven years have passed since novelist Barbara Pym's "rediscovery," and a mere eight years since her death, and already scholars have produced, at last count, some seven book-length studies, numerous articles, and a respectable number of dissertations. Fortunately, a Barbara Pym Newsletter appears regularly to keep "Pymophiles" advised of the several critical studies in preparation. Part of the continuing enthusiasm is (somewhat artificially) generated by the excessive publication of every shred of Pym's writing by her literary executor, Hazel Holt. Where once Pym was turned away by publisher after publisher, now ironically, they cannot get enough of her. The unconverted may question whether Pym's work deserves quite so much attention—her eleven or so novels do seem, initially anyway, rather similar in tone, characterization, and plot. Janice Rossen's The World of Barbara Pym, a splendidly careful consideration of Pym's central themes and novelistic aims, should manage to persuade the skeptical.
Rossen knows Pym's work through and through. In many ways, this study of Pym is like reading the novels themselves: the pace is gentle and, on the surface, unassuming yet, underneath, persistent in the conscientious observation of the minute. Drawing extensively from Pym's unpublished writings in the Bodleian and integrating pertinent biographical information, Rossen identifies several of Pym's key interests in order to "show not only their personal significance to [Pym], but the way in which they shaped her writing, and what elements in them she appropriated for her fiction." These interests (one hesitates to use the word passion when speaking of Pym) range from the tradition of English literature, Oxford University (Pym read English at St. Hilda's College), and the Anglican Church, to anthropology. Other chapters focus on the importance of spinsterhood, Pym's conception of the artist (the artist as observer, a chapter not entirely distinct from the one devoted to anthropology), and, finally, the themes of loneliness, aging, and death in Pym's later work.
According to Rossen, Pym eschews political satire—and an experimental writing style—in favor of gently chiding traditional stereotypes but, most importantly, always with a sense of humor. To achieve this delicate operation, Pym usually resorts to understatement. The reader must be attentive to the subtext because Pym is too polite to allow direct criticism to surface. Rossen traces the literary influences that shape Pym's narrative style (dialogue and so forth) and then moves on to suggest her intellectual debt to the Great Tradition—fragments of which permeate the Pym novel (and titles). Yet, characteristically, Pym's invocation of Tradition is also an opportunity for mild subversion with praise too high to be credible. Typically, Pym proceeds by defining all things by what they are not; this is the source of her humor and her social criticism. Nothing in her small world is exempt, especially the Church and the Academy, because, for Pym, "writing is a means of quiet, satisfactory revenge; a matter of satirising oneself, yet also of exposing the vagaries and absurdities of others, particularly men."
By recognizing that the quality of Pym's work must be attributed to more than her high comedy or self-assured "novel of manners," Rossen's study takes us a good deal further than previous criticism. Still, as Rossen herself recognizes, more work needs to be done. An exploration of the silences of Pym's text, for [End Page 290] instance, might provide insights on her attitudes toward sexuality, class, and social change in postwar society. A feminist sensibility would enable the Pym advocate to question the criteria that assigns Pym the marginal status of "miniaturist." Rossen concludes her study with a disappointing final assessment: "Pym's fiction will probably fall ultimately into the category of 'minor, but elegant'—its old-fashioned, quaint quality does not obscure its value, but her scope is too narrow to exalt her to the category of major novelist." Feminist critics might argue that the traditional labels of "major" and "minor"—a tactical designation that frequently and effectively dismisses serious consideration of women's...