Finding Barbara Pym…

I bought my first Barbara Pym novel in a second hand bookshop over thirty years ago. It was titled Some Tame Gazelle. There are times in a reader’s life when one discovers a friend for life and so it was with me and Barbara Pym. Her books have comforted and uplifted me for decades.

It was, and still is, almost impossible to find her marvellous novels in standard book stores and so I find myself scouring the shelves of second hand bookshops in the hope of uncovering one. When I went to London, in 2010, I saw a row of her books in Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross.  I couldn’t drag myself away from the array of tantalising titles. I had to restrain myself (because we were travelling) and it was so hard to only choose four of them.  I relished every carefully chosen, crisp and impeccable word in those books.

 In 2015 I found her again among the remainders in Clouston and Hall Booksellers in Civic. There was just one novel of hers, No Fond Return of Love, in amongst piles of academic remainders but it was all I could do not to skip about the shop and sing with happiness.

I have read all her books by buying the rest on Kindle but the excitement of finding her on dusty shelves of pre-loved books has eluded me— until last week. I had just ordered tea and an apricot tart at Tilley’s in Lyneham and, while waiting, I had a quick browse through the sale table at Booklore (a second hand bookstore) next door. Suddenly, there it was… A Very Private Eye An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters Barbra Pym. The book was edited by Hazel Holt and Barbara Pym’s sister, Hilary Pym.  

I stared at it for a brief heart stopping moment– then, in a second, I scooped it up, paid for it and bore it back to my table. Tea had just arrived and I lifted my cup in a silent toast to this old friend who had offered me so many hours of solace and joy over the years.

Like Jane Austen, Pym painted her pictures on a small square of ivory, and covered much the same territory as did her better-known predecessor: the details of smallish lives led to places that could only be in England. .. And yet although Pym’s novels are about as far away as possible from engagement with the great political and social issues, they are powerful reminders that one of the great and proper concerns of literature is that motley cluster of small concerns that makes up our day-to-day lives. This is what gives her novels their permanent appeal.  (Alexander McCall Smith).

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women: ‘One of the 20th century’s most amusing novels’ | Books | The Guardian

© Anita Patel, 2020

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