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BOOK REVIEWS The Varied Portrait of Barbara Pym: A Review of the Post-1985 Critical Explosion Richard A. Widmayer College of Idaho Since the "discovery" of British author Barbara Pym in 1977 when she was cited by both Philip Larkin and Sir David Cecil as the most ignored contemporary novelist, there has been a growing number ofPym readers and critics. But as yet there is little agreement in the Academy as to whether Pym is good merely for recalling sabbaticals in England or whether she is to be viewed as a serious and important novelist. The assessment of Pym's work is complicated by its complex tone: it is difficult to decide whether the humor is gentle laughing at our more absurd moments, or whether behind the (as Pym put it) "cozy" mood there is a much bleaker world view, perhaps bleaker than Pym herself was willing to acknowledge. This disagreement about tone has been evident at every MLA session on Pym's work I have attended. In the brief discussion following the reading of papers there has usually been an exchange between the Pym fanciers, dressed in tweed (looking not too dissimilar from Pym's academic Esther Clovis with her hair like a dog) who mainly want to worship the world Pym created and insist that her works are entirely celebratory; in opposition there are those critics, usually not in tweed, who insist that the works are much darker, that the good humor ofthe author and characters is close to desperation, for the world ofthe novels echoes Eliot's Waste Land. The more usual Pym comparison is to Jane Austen, and although there are some general similarities, the most revealing parallel may be between reader reactions. More than a few Janeites read Austen not for her insights, or even her irony; instead Austen is used as a non-prescription tranquilizer. The result is not very illuminating for the novels, and, as recent biographies of Austen have shown, creates an idealization of the author which obscures Austen's more disturbing world. The nature of Pym's work has been similarly obscured by the "autobiography," A Very Private Eye (New York: Dutton, 1984), edited by Hilary Walton and Hazel Holt, Pym's sister and her friend and literary executor. The sections chosen from Pym's unpublished papers, along with the editorial comments, seem determined to demonstrate Pym as a "nice" and well balanced person. This view may even be essentially accurate, but the work as a whole did not further any notion of Pym as a serious novelist; instead we were treated to more anecdotes about how "charming" and "cozy" life in England can be. Beyond this autobiography a growing number of critical studies have been published since Pym's death in 1980. It is the purpose of this essay to briefly survey the next step in the acceptance of Pym by the Academy, the book-length study ofthe author. Even here, however, the critics seem divided as to whether Pym is a serious novelist or merely a charming friend, more prized for eccentricity than intellect. This mixed reaction 241 242Rocky Mountain Review reflects Pym's continuing uncertain status. In addition it probably also parallels what might be expected from early critical works, a mixture of nostalgia and insight; indeed these books were needed as a background for the more complex works which one suspects are probably already underway on more than a few word processors. The least of the already published works is TAe Pleasure ofMiss Pym by Charles Burkhart. This slight book (116 pages of text complete with new photographs and a cloyingly insensitive title) seems determined to reassure readers that there is little to think about when reading a Pym novel: "Without exception the twelve novels conclude on an upbeat note, a major, if muted, chord. It comes to be as expected as her easy use of coincidence ..." (24). At times Burkhart comes close to interesting observations, but often these are cut short by the breezy format of the book—the analysis of the novels in chronological order barely takes thirty pages (29-59), and then the book continues with "clever" chapters such as "Miss Pym and the...


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pp. 241-245
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