In her introduction to Independent Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym, Janice Rossen defends the continuing publication of Barbara Pym criticism. Rossen, herself the author of a book-length study of the novelist, finds the Pym canon deserving of the attention it has recently received. This volume contains material of interest to both the scholar and the casual reader.
Like Graham Greene, Barbara Pym has attracted two levels of readers—those who are entertained by her deceptively simple style and those who study her work to learn how she achieves it. Her apparently ordinary characters display her astute observations of human psychology; her translucent style, though replete with obvious literary allusions, also conceals a complex system of imagery. Embedded within her superficially meagre plotting are the universal themes of serious art—the isolation of the individual, the search to find meaning in existence, and he difficulties inherent in relationships between the sexes.
Independent Women is a collection of essays about the life and work of the [End Page 342] novelist. In an apparent attempt to compensate for the wide diversity in the content and intent of the essays, the book has been divided into four parts. Part One is titled "The Creative Process," and the three essays included discuss the influence of the personal experiences of the author upon her art. Barbara Everett reviews the journals, diaries, and the autobiographical A Very Private Eye in terms of the events that they record which Pym later adapted for her novels. Anne M. Wyatt-Brown scans the same materials to discover that even in this private writing, Pym transformed her experiences as she recorded them. Pym's long-time coworker and literary executor, Hazel Holt, contributes an essay about a seminal period in the development of the writer when she was a young woman still living at home with her parents. The book concludes with two personal reminiscences about the author—one by Robert Smith, a friend of the writer from her early days of success, and the other by Roger Till, a fan of the author from her out-of-print days.
In the section titled "Literary Heritage," Jan Fergus proves that Pym used Jane Austen's Emma as a source for the theme and imagery in A Glass of Blessings, and Janice Rossen, with her customary keen analysis, shows how Pym rewrote Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in at least three variations. Both Laura L. Doan and Charles Burkhard discuss Pym's characterization of bachelors and homosexuals and their dependency upon women in the "New Approaches" section. Under the same subheading Barbara Bowman examines the divided narrative voice that Pym used to achieve complexity of characterization in her important female characters and the contrasting single voice assigned to all males. The "Literary Heritage" may describe Independent Women, but these "New Approaches" actually focus on Dependent Men.
Although the title of this work is somewhat misleading, the subtitle is accurate. Only a small portion of the book is about Independent Women, but almost all of it is concerned with The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym. It is a valuable addition to the growing body of Pym scholarship.