restricted access Barbara Pym (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Cotsell. Barbara Pym. Modern Novelists Series. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 153 pp. $24.95.

The "Modern Novelists" series published by St. Martin's Press is designed to introduce one writer's fiction both to new readers and, in the words of the General Editor, to those "already familiar with some parts of the achievement in question and [who] now wish to place it in the context of the total oeuvre." Anyone attempting to satisfy both sorts of audiences will certainly run up against the problem of how to offer newcomers a relatively comprehensive overview of a writer's central works yet hold the interest of the initiated by exploring the more subtle aspects of a writer's art. Michael Cotsell's brief introduction to the novels of Barbara Pym overcomes some of the constraints imposed by the series itself but also falls somewhat short in fulfilling the modest aims of that series.

The reader already familiar with Barbara Pym's work will know that, due either to the writer's abandonment of projects or to the various lapses in time between the writing and the actual publication, it is quite difficult to unravel her publishing history, let alone follow her complex narrative development. Hazel Holt may have recognized this when, in A Very Private Eye, she included a chart indicating the dates when a novel was written, the years of U.K. and U.S.A. hardcover publication, and the time of reissue. In Barbara Pym, Cotsell goes a step further by approaching both the published and unpublished works chronologically (while making extensive use of the notebooks)—a methodology that not only settles the confusion once and for all but also provides the basis for what could be the most comprehensive assessment of Pym's achievement. One only wishes that Cotsell had been allowed to use his present study as the framework for one much larger and with greater depth—to develop a wholly satisfying work, he would need far more space than this series permits. As a result, Cotsell leads the reader close to several potentially interesting observations only to leave them undigested or unprobed: he simply tries to cover too much at the expense of any penetrating analysis. Jane and Prudence is the funniest of the novels . . . why? Pym's heroines are "disturbed by the new social conditions and mores" . . . such as? Pym's "historical subject is, in fact, how something major—Britain—became minor" . . . how? The final chapter on Pym's critical reception is little more than a straightforward report of how Pym was reviewed throughout her career, and, again, Cotsell makes points that seem tantalizingly significant. For instance, Cotsell speculates that the correspondence between Pym and Philip Larkin "developed over the years into an amusing and affectionate exchange, which gave both writers the opportunity to play parts that they clearly appreciated." What sort of parts, and what might this mean for their writing practices and relationship? The superficiality of the last chapter is especially disappointing in light of Cotsell's final word on Pym's place in postwar British fiction where he writes that "Pym's achievement places her alongside Philip Larkin as one of the undoubtedly important writers of the . . . period." This conviction, like so many other observations, must be taken at face value.

Although many issues (often larger historical points or ideological subtleties) are mentioned only in passing, Cotsell does cover all of the necessary and important bases in terms of narrative elements. His attentiveness to setting and characterization in Chapter Five, for example, makes for an analysis that, in many [End Page 820] ways, I found compelling. Readers unfamiliar with Pym might want to take a look at this study, but readers already familiar with her work would be better served by Janice Rossen's The World of Barbara Pym, Rossen's critical anthology Independent Women, or Dale Salwak's The Life and Work of Barbara Pym (these latter two studies unmentioned in Cotsell's bibliography).

Laura L. Doan
SUNY-Geneseo
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