“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasure like cooking, one's home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.”
I began this blog thinking I was going to recommend or review a specific book that I'd loved whilst reading on holiday recently. I'd loved reading it so much and thought everyone of good taste should think the same. However yesterday I started reading another book by the same author and loved it just as much, so now this article is less a book review and more a love letter to the wonderful Barbara Pym.
Barbara Pym is a novelist whose works on the surface seem to be about the musings of spinsters and their church jumble sale lives. A world of gossip and curates and taking tea, where the vicar is often unmarried and looked after by his vague sister and there is a disagreement about the church flowers. In lesser hands, this world would be disparaged and these seemingly unimportant lives mocked. However with Barbara Pym, the main characters are wry and sensible and very English in their self conscious modesty. Pym's writing is sensitive, amusing and actually rather emotionally subtle. There is no startling drama, but the small things of life were seen as equally valid.
“After all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”
Many of her characters are spinsters or people feeling as if they observe real life from the outside. People who have longings, unfortunate marriages or deep disappointments but don't give in on life and hide away, they still help at the jumble sale, meet friends for tea at a Lyons corner house and make copious pots of tea. There is something timeless about the way she describes the inner monologue of someone who yearns for more in life. Even in the funniest passages, this world is acutely observed and tenderly described.
“It seemed so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people - to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play.”
As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and watching films from the mid 20th century, another joy about Pym's earlier novels are the wonderfully evocative descriptions of life in the 1940s and 1950s. Bells tolling for evensong in Oxford, honey toast lying unfinished in the fire grate, listening to the rain fall and the Salvation Army band play hymns on a dark winter Sunday evening. These experiences may be set in the past, but are common experiences that remind us of our own lives, a very gently English form of nostalgia.
“I love Evensong. There's something sad and essentially English about it.”