Twenty years ago, I introduced an American acquaintance to the novels of Barbara Pym. Last autumn, I received a letter from her executors saying that the acquaintance, with whom I’d barely communicated in the interim, had left me her edition of Pym’s collected work. I mention this to indicate the profound affection that Pym inspires in her readers and the ties of loyalty that bind them.
Pym’s great appeal, which marks her out from other – arguably finer – mid-20th-century writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, is that she creates an immediately recognisable world, one filled with ‘excellent women’, charmingly feckless men, and clergy who hover somewhere in between. Seen through the prism of London bedsits, country vicarages and the odd suburban villa, it is a world that is suffused with a liberal Anglo-Catholic sensibility.
After achieving critical success with six novels, from Some Tame Gazelle in 1950 to No Fond Return of Love in 1961, Pym was dropped by her publishers, Jonathan Cape, who maintained that, with changing social mores and the closure of circulating libraries, she could no longer command a sufficient readership