Comic, Sad, Indefinite

A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters

by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym
Dutton, 358 pp., $19.95

Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym; drawing by David Levine

In 1966 Barbara Pym records in her diary that she is reading an account of someone that “made me laugh—people lying ill in the Dorchester and dying in Claridges.” “My own story,” she goes on, “judiciously edited from these notebooks would be subtler and more amusing.” This reinforces the feeling given by the diaries that, frank and entertaining as they are, they conceal as well as reveal. For what is Barbara Pym’s own story? Why did she choose the words “subtle” and “amusing” for it, and do they quite fit the life history as told in diaries and letters here? The “story” ostensibly is the quiet progress of an unmarried lady novelist who produced ten books, very gently satiric ones, very English, much concerned with the provision of cups of tea in adversity and the workaday aspects of the Church of England. But seeing the life in close-up we can find that there is much more to be known about this writer’s life.

The beginning of the story, anyway, is as bright as daylight: the future creator of churchy spinsters and mopish curates was a radiantly pretty girl with a passion for clothes, “the flicks,” punting, ginger beer and ice cream, and, above all, young men. Her Oxford diaries from the early 1930s might be those of any other ebullient and romantic young sprig. On one page alone, we find her devoted to black velvet dresses, kangaroos, Moll Flanders, Leslie Howard, “Stormy Weather,” and peach-colored lace underwear—an admirable selection. “Disgraceful I know but I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to it being seen!” Barbara Pym was ravenously inquisitive about people herself, so we may reasonably be prompted by the peach underwear to wonder: how far did her string of love affairs (sentimental, unhappy) go? The diaries don’t reveal it, apart from one entry in 1932, when she was nineteen: “I went to tea with Rupert (and ate a pretty colossal one)—and he with all his charm, eloquence and masculine wiles, persuaded…. [Here several pages have been torn out.]”

Soon the diaries’ account of Oxford frolics gives way to a very long-term unrequited love, the first and foremost of a series to last thirty-five years. She stalks the streets where she might meet him, he actually speaks to her (“felt desperately thrilled about him so that I trembled and shivered and went sick”), he is offhand with her, he allows her to type his manuscript for him. Here the world of Sandra (Barbara Pym’s assumed name at Oxford) takes a first step toward that of the author of novels of pianissimo love and loss. In 1937 Henry Harvey, the loved one, marries someone else and in the diary she inscribes So endete [sic] eine grosse Liebe. She writes, however, a brilliant series of letters to him and his wife over the next few years, showy and arch and just slightly…

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