Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Books We Weren't Allowed To Read. Barbara Pym's Unwritten Masterpieces.

No, this isn’t a blog about books our parents / teachers/ censors thought were unsuitable for us. This is about books which might have been written but weren’t, and the sad reasons why.

I was introduced to the wonderful Barbara Pym when I was already an adult, by a friend who wanted my opinion of her. My friend had heard Pym compared to Jane Austen, and wanted to know if I thought she deserved such a striking testimonial. I read one book, Some Tame Gazelle, and was immediately hooked.

Barbara Pym isn’t really so very like Jane Austen. Her characters are much less realistic, much more satirically and ironically drawn - although Jane Austen certainly uses irony, just as Barbara Pym does. Everyone knows the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice,  ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,’ which is unmistakeably Austen. The opening sentence of Some Tame Gazelle is just as unmistakeably Pym, if not so widely known. ‘The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but it was a pity that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when he sat down.’ Who could resist reading on? Certainly not me. But the difference between the two writers is already obvious.

Barbara Pym’s sad story is already fairly widely known, but I’m going to tell it again in case you may have missed it.  From 1950, when Some Tame Gazelle was published, until 1961, Jonathon Cape published six of her books. They were popular, and she had an established fan base, which was steadily growing. Then, in 1963, Cape turned down her new book, An Unsuitable Attachment, for no very clear reason. Barbara Pym was devastated. Who wouldn’t be?

The strange thing is that this book, which was finally published in 1982, is in my opinion one of her funniest. The attachment between the cat Faustina and her mistress Sophia (who says,'I sometimes feel I can't reach Faustina as I've reached other cats'), the parish visit to Italy, Mervyn's proposal to Ianthe ("Whose house would we live in? asked Ianthe. 'Oh, yours!' he answered without hesitation. 'Ours isn't at all nice and besides it's only leasehold.') – these are only a few of its marvellous moments.

But all Barbara Pym's books are full of such moments of sheer delight.  Excellent Women, with its first person narrator Mildred ( who tells us in the first chapter that 'I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women,') is one of the better known and is certainly one I love, but it would be hard to pick out any of the books and say it was her best.  They are all well worth reading –  and, after all, there aren't very many of them –  unfortunately. 

Over the next fourteen years, she tried in vain to work out what was suddenly wrong with her writing. She rewrote the rejected book, tried a round of other publishers, and tried a new style in The Sweet Dove Died, but found that it was also rejected.

Things changed suddenly in 1977. Lord David Cecil, the well known Literary Critic, and Philip Larkin the poet, both chose Barbara Pym to be included in the Times Literary Supplement’s list of the most under-rated writers of the century – Pym was the only writer to be picked twice. Her stock immediately soared. Her next book, Quartet in Autumn, was published within months, The Sweet Dove Died was published soon afterwards, and her early books were re-issued. But her second spring was all too short. In January 1980 Barbara Pym died of cancer, aged sixty-six.

This is a story which makes me very angry.  When I think of the number of books which a confident, happy Pym would undoubtedly have produced during those empty years, I feel like kicking – or even killing – the publishers who took it upon themselves to proclaim that her books were going out of fashion, and that the public wanted something different.

Moreover, her output was not only limited but changed. Her few later books are much more serious, even melancholy. They are still brilliant books, but what happened to the sparkle of her first six? What, indeed!

If there’s a moral to this story, it is surely that for too long writers – and, of course, readers – have been suffering from the dogmatic opinions of a handful of people who have, in this case, stifled the creative springs of a great writer and deprived us of books which would have added hours of pleasure to our lives – well, certainly to mine. And we have no way of telling how many other books have been lost to the world because publishers took it upon themselves to reject other equally good writers, who eventually gave up and stopped writing.

Thank goodness the EBook revolution should have put an end to all this.  Writers need no longer allow publishers to dictate what shall be read. Readers need no longer be deprived of books which they would enjoy. All we need is the courage to make our own choices, and to stop allowing a small group of people to censor our reading as well as our writing.


  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing the story of Barbara Pym. I regret to say that I have never read her work before -- a fault I intend to correct immediately.

    Your words are also a just indictment of the publishing industry. They claim to be the "gatekeepers" who "protect" the readers from things they wouldn't want to read. E-publishing is, in its truest sense, freedom: not only for the struggling writer, but also for the overprotected reader. The readers are making their own choices now; the best indie writers will be rewarded for their bravery in stepping away from the publishers and allowing their works to see the light of day.

  2. Hi, Gerry: I didn't even know any of this about Barbara Pym. You have now been "followed!"

  3. Fantastic post, Gerry! I see what you mean now about having read your mind!

    Of course I rushed over to Amazon (you're right, the opening to Some Tame Gazelle is irresistable!) only to find the conniving gatekeepers are at it again.

    Here's a book first published over sixty years ago, that the gatekeepers sidelined and then badly treated the author. And now they have the temerity to charge 4.99 for the ebook version.

    On a 70% royalty that's £3.50 rolling into the publisher, of which the estate of Barbara Pym will be lucky to see 60p.

    A real shame. The books sound great, but making the Big Six richer than they already are is not a priority just now.

  4. It's refreshing to read a well articulated view about the power and dominance held by traditional publishers to the detriment of some authors and readers.

    Readers are a discerning lot. If they do not like a book, they will not persevere with it. The detractors of ePublishing suggest that eBooks dilute the talent pool of authors. I think they are just scared, and they should be. It's a changing industry, for the better, for exactly the reasons you have written about.

    Good work.

  5. Susan, thank you for your comment. I'm really glad you enjoyed the post, and even more that you now want to read Barbara Pym. I'm sure you'll love her. Yes, things are changing for the better in the publishing world. As a writer, I appreciate the chance to choose whether and when to put my work out there. As a reader, I am grateful for the freedom, as you rightly call it, which I now have. Have you read Mark Williams excellent new post on this subject?

  6. This post eased a bruised spirit. Just the other day a was lambasted by someone telling me how much she hated my book 'The Fishing Trip' because of the premise. She never read any of the book. just decided because she worked in the publishing business, it would never sell because it wasn't 'commercial' enough. And since she ran an online magazine she didn't want her readers to read it. It is a shame how a person, who thinks he controls the key, buries the voice of the author.

  7. Welcome, Tim - thanks for following me.

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  9. Khylahangel,thanks for your encouraging comments. Yes, readers can, and should be allowed to, choose for themselves. The censorship of publishers and agents should now be a thing of the past.

  10. Ey, I can fully sympathise with you from my own experience. This sort of thing should not happen. I hope you intend to get your book out there and let the reader judge if it's worth reading. Whether or not a book is 'commercial' is not a good criteria, and why should one person set up to be the judge of this in any case? The people who do this have made so many mistakes in the past, you would think they'd have learnt to be less dogmatic. The case of Barbara Pym is only one clear example of far too many.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Mark.
    Yes, again the publishers have priced a book which should be available to anyone at a reasonable price, at a ridiculous, greedy rate. A real shame!
    I greatly enjoyed your own post on the subject of the freedom e-publishing gives readers as well as writers. Please keep up your very encouraging blog.

  12. Wow Gerry, I had never heard of Barbara Pym before, what a sad tale :-(
    You're so right about this Ebook revolution putting the agents and publishers in their place, at last!! Great post, thank you.
    Reggie :-)

  13. Thanks for your encouraging comments, Reggie.
    I hope now you've heard of Barbara Pym, you might like to read her - I'm sure you'd enjoy her!

  14. Gerry I'm also sad to admit I had never heard of Barbara Pym. I so hope the main publishing houses are panicking just a little (preferably a lot!)
    Brilliant article again.

  15. Thanks, Tee! Barbara Pym is well worth getting to know - you can pick up the paperbacks second hand on Amazon for very, very little, although apparently the Kindle versions are ridiculously expensive.
    Hope Shasta Summer is going well!

  16. Oh, Gerry, I LOVE Barbara Pym's books. I was introduced to her as a teenager by my mum, who has read Excellent Women literally to death as her copy is falling apart.

    I liked Some Tame Gazelle better, but I haven't read any Barbara Pym for years and years. Her world of middle class librarians was where I used to belong, but having married a down to earth working class lad, I have become more down to earth and forthright myself. But in my own novels, the middle class woman plays a big part.

    Maybe I'll give Barbara another read soon...

  17. Catherine, good to meet another Pym fan. I've been amazed how many people hadn't heard of her.
    Thanks for coming by and commenting.
    Do re-read her - you'll be surprised how good she still is, I'm sure.

  18. Gerry, I hadn't read Mark Williams' post, but I have now! :) I am one of those writers who has kept writing, despite lackluster sales on my first novel. With each new book, I have seen my sales grow like a snowball headed downhill. I am now preparing to publish my sixth novel -- the first in a series. Every day I find new reasons to be encouraged -- and new fans to encourage me.

    I'm posting links to this blog and to Mark's blog today on my blog.

  19. Susan, thanks for your very encouraging comments - I think all writers who see them will, like me, be inspired by what you say. It's really important not to give up. You have proved the truth of this by your own success.
    Thanks so much for posting a link to my blog. I'm sure Mark will appreciate the link to his blog, too.

  20. This is an amazing post! I have never heard of this writer and now I want to read everything!!

  21. Thanks for your comments, Doreen - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, do read Barbara Pym - I'm absolutely sure you'll enjoy her!

  22. Hi Gerry, what a delightful read. I don't think I've read your blog until today, but I really enjoyed what you wrote, and can understand your anger at such wasted talent. Three cheers for the ebook revolution, as you say. Of course, there's even more rubbish available now than ever before, but at least we're playing on a leveller field.

    So do you think I should trade in my copy of Belfast Girls for Some Tame Gazelle?

    Confession time: I hated Pride and Prejudice. Can we still be friends?