- Reviewed by
Barbara Pym was a writer of distinctive qualities who, having suffered discouragement and neglect for fifteen years, was rediscovered toward the end of her life, to take her rightful place as a novelist of considerable originality and force. Since 1977, the year of her "rediscovery," there has been a flood of critical essays and books about her formative and creative periods, ever growing in quantity and quality. But Annette Weld's is the first detailed analysis of the entire canon, both published and unpublished, within the conventions of the novel of manners. By looking discerningly at so much of Pym's work from this critical perspective, Weld produces compelling new insights into this significant British writer and adds appreciably to our understanding of an "unarticulated feminism, an ironic wit, and a firmly detailed documentation of the world as she saw it."
Specifically, Weld's stated purpose is fivefold: (1) to define the novel of manners and Pym's place within the genre; (2) to show how Pym experimented in her early work with several literary poses as she tried to discover her voice; (3) to examine her early novels for their characteristic themes and intents, for their shared "lightness [End Page 965] of spirit and tone"; (4) to consider the reasons for Pym's rejection, resurrection, and valediction; and (5) to incorporate significant events from her private life that influenced her creative development. Henry James' argument that the writer of fiction should be "one upon whom nothing is lost" received an emphatic embodiment in the life of Pym, whose life and observations are woven inextricably into the fabric of her fiction. Weld demonstrates that principle in her study.
Both the general reader (familiar with Pym's work) and the specialist will benefit from reading this book. Weld relies minimally on previous critical studies and reviews and heavily on primary materials—novels, unpublished poems, short stories, and radio plays, essays and interviews, journals and diaries—and thus the book is not a mere recitation of what others have said. In that sense she has taken control of her material; she doesn't rely on other critics to do the talking for her. Weld's voice is clear, telling Pym's story, embellished by (not built upon) her own words and the words of others, and her style is readable and lively. Of value, too, is the number of quotations from interviews Weld has conducted with principals in Pym's life and materials from Pym's diaries and Journals that are held at the Bodleian. I found reading the excerpts to be quite exhilarating and revealing. The book left me with the desire to return to the novels themselves—the mark of a stimulating analysis.