Oxonians Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin wrote to each other dedicatedly for decades, and all of their letters are held by the Bodleian - a place that Pym cherished and used in her work.
Above: Novelist Barbara Pym at home in Oxfordshire in 1977
Philip Larkin (St John's, English, 1940) tirelessly championed his friend, the often-overlooked novelist Barbara Pym (St Hilda’s, English, 1931) as a 'chronicler of quiet lives' with a 'unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life'. Larkin and Pym had formed a close bond since they started writing to each other in 1961, when he asked her permission to write an essay on her work. Remarkably they did not meet until 1975, but kept up their correspondence until her death in 1980. Larkin always remained a passionate advocate of her work, up until his death five years later.
At St. Hilda's Pym began keeping an extensive diary, episodes from which inspired some of her later novels. According to her biographer, ‘Even by 1930s Oxford standards, where male undergraduates outnumbered the girls by at least ten to one, Barbara had a great many boyfriends’. The Bodleian often featured in her relationships. Later she wrote to Larkin: ‘The (then) English Reading Room of the Bodleian Library has many sentimental memories for me – I can remember deliberately not going there for fear of seeing a certain person or to hope that my absence would be noted.’
Above: Pym's supportive friend and fan, the poet Philip Larkin
She had what she described as ‘the notebook habit’, writing down ‘possible scenes or turns of plot for novels, quotations that appeal to me, occasional overheard scraps of conversation’. In the early days she wrote drafts of her novels by hand, but as time went by this changed, as she wrote to Larkin, ‘I have to force myself to type some of the earlier chapters because that’s the only way I can tell what it’s going to be like’.
After gaining a second class degree, she began work on Some Tame Gazelle, for Henry Harvey (the character 'Lorenzo'/'Gabriel') with whom she had fallen in love while an undergraduate. Between 1935 and 1950 she wrote several short stories and the novels Civil to Strangers, Gervase and Flora, Crampton Hodnet and most of Excellent Women, before Some Tame Gazelle was published by Jonathan Cape in 1950.
Above: The Bodleian's Upper Reading Room as it was in 1929
A decade of popularity followed with the appearance of Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less than Angels (1955), and A Glass of Blessings (1958), before her style and subject matter became unfashionable in the 1960s. Despite the success of her early novels, by 1963 her work had already fallen victim to literary fashion and her publisher turned down An Unsuitable Attachment. After that Pym could not get another book published for 16 long and frustrating years. Her letters to Larkin, kept at the Bodleian, give us an intimate insight into her often-forgotten career and her personal life as she shared her feelings with him. 'It seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again,' she wrote in despair in 1970.
Larkin was largely responsible for Pym's recall from the wilderness, when he nominated her "the most underrated novelist of the 20th century" in the Times Literary Supplement in January 1977. Her books were soon republished and attracted a whole new American audience.
Quartet in Autumn was published in September 1977 and marked the beginning of a great renaissance for Pym. As a tribute to her great friend and support, she chose a reading of Larkin's An Arundel Tomb for her Desert Island Discs appearance on Radio 4 the following year. She had the satisfaction of seeing Quartet in Autumn short-listed for the Booker Prize, and several of her earlier novels reissued before her death from cancer on 11 January 1980.
Above: Barbara's cottage in Finstock in the summer of 1977
In 1994 St Hilda’s started the Barbara Pym Society, which has built up a strong following; it hosts conferences each year (in Oxford and Boston). The Society has attracted a number of distinguished writers and performers – including the late Baroness James of Holland Park (crime writer P D James, Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s) and character actress Miriam Margolyes OBE (Harry Potter films, BAFTA Age of Innocence).
This year, celebrating the friendship between Pym and Larkin, a dramatised reading of their correspondence is being given by Tríona Adams (St Hilda’s College, English, 1995) and performer Tony Guilfoyle during the St Hilda’s Gaudy. The event will be followed by a drinks reception – sherry, of course – to which all guests are cordially invited.
For details of the Barbara Pym Society, see http://www.barbara-pym.org/
The Bodleian's Barbara Pym papers include the manuscripts of published and unpublished novels and short stories, literary papers, notebooks, diaries and correspondence. The catalogue is available online.
Photographs courtesy of The Barbara Pym Society and Bodleian Library