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The Impossible Dream: Barbara Pym and Popular Underdogs
Of all the charmingly-impossible writerly identities, I think I begrudge Barbara Pym’s the most. Her formal investiture came in 1977 when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her as the most underrated author “of the past seventy-five years”, and she has enjoyed an uninterrupted revival ever since. Our own Times (not TLS) published “The Best High Comedy” in 1978, “A Funnier Jane Austen” in 1983 (keep a running tally of the Austen comparisons, if you want, and you’ll never be bored1), “Pride and Perseverance” in 2013 (see??), “In Praise of Pym” in 2017, while the New Yorker had “Barbara Pym and the New Spinster” in 2015.
There’s nothing unique to Pym about riding a ‘rediscovery’ wave, of course, but I can’t think of another 20th-century author who’s enjoyed so nearly-universal acclaim to the tune of being “underrated” for nearly fifty years without ever tipping over into simple ratedness; she continues to be recommended in dark and knowing tones, as if she were still a well-kept secret. All on the strength of nine novels! That’s the dream, if ever there were one – nine simple novels, nine slim little novels, nine little gamine Audrey Hepburn unassuming who-me? little old novels, followed by decades of being scooped up by Lords and Larkins to call you a baa-lamb and say, “Hasn’t anyone rediscovered you, you poor little thing? But you must be freezing! Who would leave something so precious as you out in the rain?” and generally make much of you while you close your eyes gently, smile, and say nothing (my nine little novels! Careful, they’ve got hollow bones), the occasional catty remark from your Ackroyds and Byatts (“she has the ability to create a comfortable little world…but why the Ph.D. dissertations?”) to stiffen the spine and keep one from lapsing entirely into sentimental self-regard – what could be better?
To have a lot of money but never turn into a snob, to be very rich and famous but to hardly care about money and of course to be very humble always, as humble as famous and as famously humble as humbly famous, for one hundred people in a room to whisper in perfect unison “There you are! — But you’re so terribly underrated! Absolutely no one is talking about this,” and for everyone in the world to stand back while you flower a third time. That’s all I want, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
Additional points scored for “comedy of manners,” “attention to detail,” any reference to food or fashion, especially if it’s unclear whether the reference is meant to be slighting or not, exaggerated examples of unrequited love, “delicate,” “miniature,” “minute,” “jewels,” “sharp,” “deceptive scale,” (really, anything that could be used to describe, say, Orientalism or handcrafted furniture), “down at heel,” “no longer fashionable,” “shabby genteel,” “end of an era,” any synonym for muted, etc.