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Reviewed by:
Dale Salwak, ed. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987. 225 pp. $22.50.
Diana Benet. Something to Love: Barbara Pym's Novels. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 164 pp. pb. $8.95.

Dale Salwak has rendered a valuable service in assembling this collection of sixteen essays plus three brief notes, most of them previously unpublished and written expressly for this volume. Divided into sections on "The Life," "The Work," [End Page 739] and "In Retrospect," the essays, with only two exceptions, bring to Pym's fiction respectful but incisive scrutiny generally devoid of the maundering and twittering of too many earlier commentaries. Salwak has chosen contributors wisely, including a nicely balanced selection of fiction writers, friends of the novelist, and academic critics. The editor appends a useful bibliography and a reasonably thorough index.

Among the biographical essays, Hazel Holt's "The Novelist in the Field: 1946-74" emerges as particularly noteworthy. Pym's longtime friend, coworker, and literary executor provides here an account of the novelist's life at the International African Institute, a position that gave her great opportunity for detached and amused observation of the raw material of fiction. Holt's essay is nicely complemented by Muriel Schulz's admirable treatment of "The Novelist as Anthropologist," which treats Pym's novels as "an anthropology of the middle-class England of her own time." They embody a more perceptive interpretation of a culture than the social scientist could hope to attain and incidentally correct the anthropologist's assumption that it is the male rituals that reveal a culture's values.

As one would expect, several of the essays on "the work" concern Pym's treatment of the relationships between men and women. Penelope Lively cautions that the relevant subject is "a battle of gender rather than of sex," whereas John Halperin argues convincingly that because Pym's real theme of "the ultimate failure of human relations" is potentially tragic, this battle has no victors, only victims. Halperin speculates that Pym's own disappointments in love molded her fictional treatment of men as selfish creatures; more offensively, A. L. Rowse suggests that she "never succeeded" in marrying because she "noticed too much" about the foibles of men. This deplorable and patronizing attitude is neatly refuted by Robert Liddell, Pym's friend since Oxford days, who denies in "A Success Story" that she was "frustrated" or "hurt" by unrequited love that, he asserts, she cultivated almost as a hobby. Certainly one could assemble ample evidence, especially from A Very Private Eye, to bolster both arguments, but it hardly seems worth the trouble; as always, this sort of speculation condescends but fails to illuminate. In "Love and Marriage in the Novels" Mary Strauss-Noll places the biographical material into proper perspective, correctly emphasizing the irony and detachment that transmuted Pym's own experiences into the stuff of fiction. Strauss-Noll examines Pym's ambivalence toward marriage and suggests that for several of her characters the ideal state seems to be widowhood, combining the status of marriage with freedom from "the inconvenience associated with a husband."

Should any doubt linger, several essays in this collection demonstrate irrefragably that Pym has been subsumed into the scholarly domain. Lotus Snow lists all the literary allusions in the fiction, rather ploddingly concluding that Pym preferred Arnold and the Metaphysicals, especially Donne. Janice Rossen surveys "The Pym Papers" deposited at the Bodleian, and Robert J. Graham employs the evidence afforded by this collection of diaries, notebooks, and unfinished manuscripts to argue that her fiction "is more consciously crafted and more purposely substantive" than most readers believe. Graham's essay is the best and most sophisticated of this collection, bringing to bear on the familiar Pym themes a trenchant analysis of prose style and narrative technique.

Diana Benet's monograph offers more of an appreciation than a critical study and will appeal most strongly to recreational readers fond of Pym. Benet examines [End Page 740] the eleven novels in order of composition (including Crampton Hodnet but not An Academic Question ) and divides them into three 'chronological groups. Her unremarkable thesis asserts that Pym...

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