Barbara Pym and her contemporary Elizabeth Taylor knew how it felt to be ignored. Each completed a long literary ‘apprenticeship’, labouring for years without worldly success before a publisher finally said yes to one of their novels.
Even once they were established as authors, their finely nuanced, understated prose often failed to achieve the recognition it deserved.
In 1963, the publisher of Pym’s six previous novels rejected her next manuscript, citing gloomy sales predictions. Such news could scarcely have arrived at a worse time for the forty-nine-year old, coming soon after she had been burgled twice, which had included the theft of her typewriter. Although Pym picked herself up and began the process of sending An Unsuitable Attachment to alternative firms, over the next fourteen years her efforts to sell this, and other novels, met with no success.
The 1960s also saw a downturn in Taylor’s literary fortunes. Unlike Pym’s, her writing would continue to make it into print, but her work, which had often received positive reviews in the 1940s and 50s, began to attract the criticism that it was out of step with the times.
Though neither Taylor nor Pym were ever stalwarts of any literary scene, during these difficult years, they could both draw comfort from a handful of writer friends – including each other.
By the time their work fell out of favour, the pair had known each other for well over a decade, having first met for tea at Fortnum & Mason in 1950. Then each in their late thirties, they soon began a correspondence that lasted close to two decades. They also continued to meet in person, and attended gatherings for the writers’ organisation PEN together – occasions gently satirised by Pym in her 1953 book Jane and Prudence.
Their different literary styles and often polarised beliefs had little bearing on their feelings of kinship. Pym’s social world, and that of her books, is firmly rooted in the Anglican church, whereas Taylor was a committed Atheist. For many years, Taylor was also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, joining in the mid-1930s – whereas, in a similar period, Pym had recorded in her diary her disapproval ‘of much that Communism stands for’.
Despite such divergences, the two seem to have felt that a great deal still united them. In their letters, they talked of their admiration for each other’s work, and delighted in the interests they did share – a mutual pleasure in clothes, for instance, especially hats.
Each confided in the other regarding personal matters, too. Taylor told Pym how much she hated her name – shared, of course, with one of the world’s most famous women. On occasion, this led to men writing to Taylor in error, requesting photographs of her in a bikini. Pym, in turn, let her friend in on the story of one of her doomed love affairs. And when, in her forties, Taylor suffered a miscarriage, she divulged details of this to Pym – including the fact that, out of what seems to have been a sense of shame, she had hidden this trauma from her children.
Throughout their careers, both women fitted writing around domestic commitments, plus, in Pym’s case, the need to earn a living. Taylor, who revelled publicly in her role as a housewife, once told an interviewer that she thought up her novel’s plots over the ironing. Pym, who never married, shared a home for many years with her sister, and worked at the International African Institute in London – another organisation that provided excellent humorous material for her novels.
After Taylor’s death from cancer in 1975, at the age of sixty-three, Pym lamented that – despite Taylor’s shortlisting for the Booker Prize four years earlier – little public notice had been taken of her passing. But in 1976, not long after the posthumous publication of her novel, Blaming, Taylor was awarded a Whitbread Prize for lifetime achievement. In the 1980s, Virago began to reprint her books, and, more recently, several film adaptations have continued to raise her profile.
As for Pym, her literary life had a famously happy ending when she was ‘rediscovered’ in 1977, after being nominated twice in the same TLS article as ‘the most underrated writer of the twentieth century’.
Her reputation swiftly restored, she published two more books – including the Booker-shortlisted Quartet in Autumn – before also dying of cancer in 1980. Other works were published posthumously. In the years since, a new generation of readers have come to know and love her novels. Perhaps some of them will appreciate her friend’s 1953 assessment that Pym’s writing is ‘Something to remember as one works about the house, something to keep one company’.
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