I decided to be a completist and read ALL the Barbara Pym. I’m typically not a stickler for reading an author’s diaries, letters, or miscellany (except for Jane Austen–that woman had a vicious streak in her, and I love every minute of it), but I felt like Pym would be an entertaining correspondent. I was not wrong.
A Very Private Eye is a compiled collection of Pym’s letters, diaries from 1933-1979, and other notebook excerpts that featured ideas for her novels. We read about her college years, friendships that lasted a lifetime, failed loves and love affairs, ideas that turned into novels, and the cultural climate in which she lived (particularly World War II). A huge chunk of Pym’s life was spent attempting to get published–after an initial burst of success with her first six novels, publishers continually declined her, saying that the public didn’t want to read her kind of novel. Her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy in 1971 set the stage for a decline in health that would lead to her death in 1980. Yet these last ten years of her life brought a new burst of productivity. Two contributors to the Times Literary Supplement cited her as one of the most under-rated authors of the twentieth century, leading to a renaissance in publication and a Booker prize nomination for Quartet in Autumn. The last months of her life were spent in pain from a resurgence in her cancer, but she furiously worked on getting her last submitted novel (A Few Green Leaves) ready for publication.
Her writing is hilarious, witty, and heartbreaking. The last portion shows darkness creeping into her life, even as she tried to maintain productive writing habits and get herself published somehow. It’s clear that Pym valued her novels and characters immensely. As a reader, I feel connected to her through this deep interest in writing and in people, and I am so glad the Barbara Pym experiment of 2015 was a success. I just have her collection Civil to Strangers and Jane and Prudence left to read!