One of my favourite authors, Anne Tyler, once wrote a recommendation for another of my favourite authors, Barbara Pym:
She is the rarest of treasures; she reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.
Pym has been compared to Jane Austen possibly because of her sharp eye for the ways and manners of her contemporaries – particularly the groups of women that are found in country parishes, helping the vicar, or some dry academic at Oxford; among the office staff at a charity or small-time academic publisher. Her stories are full of missed opportunities and regret, the secretive competitiveness among women vying for recognition and even affection from the important men they orbit, yet are full of understanding, wit and humour. I love them.
Here are my top three:
Excellent Women – A post-war London housing problem (all those returned servicemen now have families and want homes) sees Mildred Lathbury having to share a bathroom with a glamorous couple – anthropologist Helena Napier and her dashing husband Rocky. Unfortunately, their marriage is a little rocky too – a wartime romance that is still struggling to adapt to peace. And will the vicar, Julian Malory, ever see Mildred as more than a friend? Or is Mildred really rather better off alone? ‘A vanishing world of manners and suppressed desires’ (publisher), plus a cast of wonderfully funny minor characters and acres of tea.
Jane and Prudence – Jane is happily married to a vicar and having moved to a new parish, has decided that the recently widowed and suitably handsome, Fabian Driver, would make the perfect husband for her friend Prudence. Living and working in London, Prudence has one failed love affair after another, so it is time she settled down. Unfortunately, Miss Morrow, companion to the tyrannical old lady, Miss Doggett, has also set her cap at Fabian. But is he really worth it? This must seem the most Austenish of set-ups, and is a delight from cover to cover.
No Fond Return of Love – Viola Dace and Dulcie Mainwaring are friends who meet up at an academic conference and become obsessed by one of the guest speakers, Aylwin Forbes. Dulcie has recently been jilted by her fiancé and Viola has long held a torch for Forbes, for whom she once did some indexing work. There is a good deal of discrete and increasingly madcap stalking when the two pay a visit to a guest-house run by Forbes’s mother. Written in 1962, the women have a sense they may have missed the boat compared to Dulcie’s teenage niece, who plans to lead a carefree in London and frequent coffee bars.