Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor

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.

Barbara Pym – We sought permission to use this image.

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.

Elizabeth Taylor – image from Wikipedia (terms: fair use)

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’.

 

Over the coming weeks…

We have a few events coming up. We’ll be in conversation with author and Something Rhymed guest blogger Antonia Honeywell at Uxbridge Library this Friday (22 September).

We’ll also be at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 14 October and the Bloomsbury Festival on Saturday 21 October.

We’ll keep posting future events on the Events Calendar page.

Eva Trout: a Woman in Need of a Friend

For this month’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire and I decided to each read something by one of our current profiled authors: Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. Both of these books are said to have been influenced by the work of one author on the other.

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

I came to Eva Trout afresh, with no prior knowledge of its plot. Since I was going to be reading not only for pleasure but also for this website, I suppose I set out with a preconceived idea that the post I eventually wrote could be about one of the friendships enjoyed by the eponymous heroine.

But that’s the trouble with preconceived ideas. Long before the late stage in the novel when Eva declares ‘I have no friend’, I had been struck by the fact that my original intention wasn’t going to work at all.

The huge gap left by the lack of a true trusted confidante for much of Eva’s life was something I kept turning over in my mind as I moved through the chapters of the novel.

When the reader first encounters Eva at the start of the book, she is a young woman still waiting to come into the fortune left to her by her late father. Despite her personal wealth, Eva has not had an easy start in life. Her mother abandoned her when she was a child, only to be killed in a plane crash soon afterwards. Since her father’s suicide some years later, Constantine Ormeau, a man who appears to have been Eva’s father’s lover, has been her unsympathetic legal guardian.

Constantine regards Eva as a problem, and even Iseult Arble, a former schoolteacher who previously showed a great deal of interest in the girl and has allowed her to move into the home she shares with her husband, has begun to feel increasingly wary towards her youthful lodger.

Eva’s social awkwardness and hard-to-predict behaviour are a puzzle to most of the novel’s other characters, isolating her from those who surround her. As a reader, I don’t mind admitting that I was left somewhat puzzled, not just by the central character but aspects of the novel as a whole.

Certain episodes will undoubtedly live on in my mind – the unbearably stilted conversation that takes place between Mr and Mrs Arble as they wait for Eva to come home one evening; or the restaurant scene during which Iseult tucks into a plate of oysters in a way that is ‘at once methodical and voluptuous’, for instance. But, overall, there was something about the book that I didn’t quite ‘get’ – not in the way that I got  The Death of the Heart, Bowen’s novel from thirty years earlier, or her moving short story ‘The Visitor’ – both of which thoroughly engaged me.

Like several notable readers I’ve since discovered, I struggled with some of Bowen’s decisions about language and structure, aspects of the book which I felt cut me off from the story and characters – particularly interesting in view of Murdoch’s likely influence on Bowen’s approach.

By the time I reached the final page, my thoughts on the subject of friendship had moved away from wishing for a lasting friend for Eva and onto wishing instead that my friend had read this book, so that we could discuss it together.

So, I suppose that this post has ended up as a request to Emma Claire to do just that, because I know for certain that, whether she agrees with my take on Eva Trout or not,  conversations with her always provide me with interesting new ways to think about literary works. And as I mentioned in one of my posts from last month, this is something I’ve really come to value in our friendship.

Get Involved

Reading Bowen’s novel got me thinking about depictions of female friendship in literature. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Jane and Prudence in the novel of the same name by Barbara Pym, and the women of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, are all examples that popped quickly into my mind. If a female friendship from a story, poem or play has left a lasting impression on you, we’d love to hear about it.

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