The poet Philip Larkin was one of Barbara Pym’s most devoted fans. ‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail,’ he told his editor at Faber in the late 1960s. Larkin’s admiration for the novelist’s ‘rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it’ was heartfelt. His friend had been out in the cold as a writer for years, ever since being dropped unceremoniously by her publisher at Jonathan Cape in 1963. She had published five widely praised novels with them, including the bestselling Excellent Women (1952), but without even reading her new manuscript, the editor Tom Maschler decided that Pym was past her sell-by date.
Larkin’s poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, published in 1974, humorously describes how his generation felt left out of the ‘swinging sixties’ era. ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’. But while his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) was selling well, it seemed that Barbara Pym’s novels – and their loyal readers – belonged to the past.
Then, in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year, there was a remarkable turnaround. This was largely thanks to Larkin’s continued admiration for her as a writer, as I write in my article ‘The ascent of Barbara Pym’, published in The Critic magazine today. Since then, her books have never been out of print, and nine of her novels were reissued by Virago in their distinguished ‘Virago Modern Classics’ series in this Platinum Jubilee year. It’s good to think that Barbara Pym’s future in the twenty-first century literary canon seems assured.
Ann Kennedy Smith, 4 September 2022