Barbara Pym, the writer most like Jane Austen

Jane Austen would have appreciated an acerbic comment I remember reading, something along the lines of “Any woman who can write grammatically is compared with Jane Austen.”

Most Janeites would agree that there really isn’t anyone who writes like Jane Austen. But nevertheless we keep searching because there are only so many times we can reread Austen’s six novels.

Since I finished a once-every-few-years rereading of the novels last year, I’ve been checking out writers regarded by this critic or that as Austen’s literary heirs because of their wit and irony, or their focus on domestic life, or their perceptiveness, or their setting in Regency England.

Some of these writers are darker than Austen, others approximate her wit but not her depth. A couple reject the comparison with Austen. Future posts will discuss these various people.

For today, a discussion of the writer who reminds me the most of Austen: British novelist Barbara Pym (1913–80).

“Jane Austen recreated only funnier,” the late New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard said of Pym. I’m not sure about funnier, but Pym’s dry irony is certainly amusing.

Like Austen, Pym preferred to work on a small canvas, limiting her scope to the people and world she knew. One of her characters, Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955), is describing Pym’s own focus when she says, “The small things of life were so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures . . . funny things seen and overheard.”

Spinsters (using the politically incorrect word is key to understanding Pym), Anglican clergy, and eccentrics are staples in Pym’s fiction. Her first book, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), set the pattern: the unmarried Bede sisters live together and organize their lives around clergymen. Pym, writing a century and a half after Austen, doesn’t marry off her women at the end. Her men are also less desirable than Austen’s, so who needs them anyway? The ending of Some Tame Gazelle is consoling rather than sad. The Bede sisters are content to hold on to spinsterhood, fussing over clergymen because they enjoy it.

As one critic noted, Pym imbues socially marginal, somewhat lonely women with dignity and resilience; they are accepting of their lives rather than resigned. Another commented that in Pym’s fiction, singlehood is an identity rather than an absence.

Excellent Women (1952) continued the focus on a spinster whose life revolves around her parish. In Jane and Prudence (1953), the one whose life revolves around the parish is the clergyman’s wife, who is matchmaking for her single friend. Less Than Angels (1955) has a new cast of characters, anthropologists, whose profession Pym had observed over two decades working as an editor for the International African Institute in London. A Glass of Blessings (1958) is a story about a bored, well-to-do young woman in 1950s London who tries to find relevance and purpose.

Like the Bedes in Some Tame Gazelle, Pym lived with her sister in a small village. She never married, although, unlike Austen, she undoubtedly had affairs. Pym shared with Austen not only her unmarried status but also a gap in production. The reasons for Austen’s hiatus are still debated. Pym’s books were rejected by publishers when her comedies of manner went out of fashion. She was rediscovered only when the Times Literary Supplement asked literary figures to name the most underrated writers of the previous 75 years. Two of them named Pym, spurring the release of the unpublished novels and the reissue of the previously published novels.

Pym’s next two novels are more melancholy. Quartet in Autumn (1977) is a poignant look at aging through the lives of four long-time coworkers as they approach isolated retirements. In The Sweet Dove Died (1978) an unmarried beauty fears the loss of her appeal as she ages.

Barbara Pym wrote 13 novels in all. Excellent Women is a good place to start; it’s the one that won me over.

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