In the penultimate chapter of The Pleasure of Miss Pym Charles Burkhart explains that he will "attempt a compilation of the opinions of men about women, women about women, and especially, women about men." This is about the closest he comes to acknowledging the critical methodology of the book as a whole. In many ways, a "compilation" approach, one that tosses out an idea and then proceeds to locate where it is manifested in the novels, seems quite compatible with Barbara Pym's narrative style. Just as Pym worked by building her narrative from detailed, detached observations copiously recorded from life experiences into notebooks, Burkhart's text is a collection of a few observations and thoughts on Pym. The unifying idea behind each of the six chapters is that Barbara Pym's novels give pleasure-both to the novelist herself and to the reader. Burkhart argues that Pym's "comedy, which was never silly or coarse, was not merely pleasant; it was adult and impeccably intelligent. She had her targets, social and personal foibles, against [End Page 738] which her arrows were brightly launched, but she was compassionate."
Before moving toward some of the central issues and themes in Pym's work, Burkhart first gives an overview of the author's life. Because so much of this material is already available in A Very Private Eye, this strikes me as unnecessary. The vicissitudes of Pym's publishing career are by now so familiar to readers and scholars that the space might have been used more profitably. Equally disappointing, the second chapter offers a descriptive review of the individual novels with minimal analysis. The study begins to get interesting when Burkhart turns his attention to four specific areas of concern in the Pym novel: anthropology, humor, relationships between the sexes, and religion. Although separated by discrete chapters, these topics are nevertheless interrelated; in fact, Burkhart uses the interrelatedness to demonstrate how Pym's world is constructed and how she establishes a place for herself.
Burkhart's aphoristic style, facilitated by the subdivision of the individual chapters into boldface subheadings, is amusing and often insightful, but there are drawbacks. Sometimes the reader is left with the impression that the short, piquant observations are presented as a plausible substitute for a more detailed analysis or the development of ideas. For instance, when Burkhart argues that Pym was obsessed with curiosity, he briefly reviews how this is expressed in a few novels to conclude hastily: "This plethora of curiosity in the novels is curious, and one speculates about it—curiously—in their author." To be sure, this book moves along at a brisk, easy pace from one point to the next, but if the reader looks for further explication, for anything more than a quick observation, there will be disappointment.
Why is this amiable and enjoyable study published by a university press rather than a large commercial press? Its general tone and brevity would be most welcome to the general reader. To borrow Burkhart's fair assessment of Pym's Crampton Hodnet, The Pleasure of Miss Pym "does have its own scrappy amusements."