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07Apr

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – the ‘modern Jane Austen’?

This excellent cradle-to-grave biography of a much loved novelist who goes in and out of fashion captures her alarming habits and tormented love affairs

In 1971 the author Barbara Pym was at her day job at the International African Institute when she noticed “Mr C” laboriously attacking his lunchtime sandwich with a knife and fork. Pym made a mental note of the detail before asking herself ruefully, “Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?” Ten years earlier, Jonathan Cape had dumped her after her sixth book on the grounds that her brand of anthropological observation of English social manners was old lady-ish, dull and didn’t sell. As an extra humiliation, no other publishing house had been interested in picking up Miss Pym: books built on “the daily round of trivial things” could hardly compete with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal or, if you were feeling fancy, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jonathan Cape had even published John Lennon (Pym liked the Beatles, but still). Clearly there was no place in contemporary literature for Mr C and his oddly formal way with a sandwich.

There is nothing unusual about major minor novelists having a disappointing and disproportionate decline, followed by a posthumous flowering in reputation and sales. What’s unusual about Pym is that her phoenix moment came while she was still alive. In 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers and critics to nominate their most underappreciated novelist of the past 75 years. Only one person was mentioned twice – by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil – and that was Pym. As a result, Cape said that it would be delighted to publish her future books (too late, she explained: she’d just signed with Macmillan); Roy Plomley wanted her for Desert Island Discs; John Updike couldn’t say enough nice things about her in the New Yorker. Best of all, the Booker prize judges shortlisted her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, her first to appear for 16 years.

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