On June 2nd 1913 the British author Barbara Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire. When I came across Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle which she started writing in her 20s, I never imagined that this hilarious book, together with the rest of her work, would become such an important part of my life.
It is hard to imagine a less likely pair than Barbara Pym and I: She is British and the queen of understatement, I am an Israeli and like to over dramatize . Her views and social criticism are muted and subtle, and if you don’t read carefully you could easily miss them. I am judgmental and make no secrets of my opinions.
Her fiction portrays a totally different world than mine, even when she writes about London it is a parochial village, her early novels 1950s tell a story of a world which no longer exists: postwar Britain and the start of the Welfare State. Her women characters are very different from me and my friends, many of them are single women whose life is strongly connected with the church.
But she is witty and very funny and these qualities are universal. Since I was intrigued by her minimalistic style and curious about her world, when it was time for me to pick a topic for my PhD dissertation at the Hebrew University I knew right away that I wanted to write about Barbara Pym. My prospective advisor was skeptical . She had read one of Pym’s books and was not impressed. Her conclusion was that Barbara Pym was superficial and inconsequential.
But she didn’t say no and suggested that I’d find a way to convince her that Pym’s work was a worthy PhD topic. The fact that in 1977, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the Times Literary Supplement chose Barbara Pym as the most underrated writer of the century was not, by itself, a good enough argument to convince my advisor.
So I wrote a short paper about one of my favorite Pym’s novel A Glass Of Blessings, this novel is one of six novels which Barbara Pym published in the 1950s. It is written in the first person from the point of view of a sheltered rather limited (even superficial) heroine Wilmet Forsyth who keeps misunderstanding the world around her. The novel deals with relevant social topics of Post War Britain like working women, alienation, mass production, and homosexuality, which was still a punishable crime at that time.
This challenge worked and as a result of this paper I wrote my dissertation on Barbara Pym. I don’t believe that Barbara Pym’s work has ever become my advisor’s “cup of tea” but that was never the issue. Creative, academic and artistic freedom in academic institutions mean that students and faculty members are allowed to pursue their interests, and that personal judgments and political opinions should not and could not influence academic decisions.
And about Barbara Pym, the most underrated writer of the 20th century: facing ongoing rejection she never gave up and kept on writing. At the moment, because of cynicism and irrelevant political pressures, art and humanities in Israel are battered, neglected and underrated. But we should not give up, this age of darkness will come to an end and we need good literature and true art.
Happy 104 Birthday Barbara Pym, and thanks for the inspiration!
P.S, my recent essay on Barbara Pym https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/on-remaining-unpublished-or-the-most-underrated-novelist-of-the-20th-century/