07 June 2013

Bioengineering a new Barbara Pym


Recently @chaosbogey tweeted asking if there were any 21st-century descendants of Barbara Pym. I read so little new fiction that I am not one to come up with much of an answer. What do you think? Are there any authors currently being published that make you think of Barbara Pym? Or what 20th-century authors who came after Pym or may have been influenced by Pym?

The question got me to thinking like an Amazon algorithm "If you liked Barbara Pym you should try..." Could we clone Barbara? If you had to describe Pym by naming authors who would you name?

My thoughts run along these lines:

Jane Austen: I think the critics are right. Pym is like a 20th-century Austen. Pym's style, while contemporary to her time, is not unlike Austen's and her observational skills and her attention to detail and nuance are certainly Austenesque.

Anthony Trollope: Pym's witty descriptions of ecclesiastical comings and and goings is more than a little evocative of Trollope's Barchester series.

Iris Murdoch: Pym's work has more humor and her characters are less serious than Murdoch's. Not to mention the fact that Pym's characters, while not necessarily prudish, don't engage in endless rounds of adulterous bed hopping as they seem to in Murdoch's books.

Anita Brookner: The academic interests of many of Pym's female characters makes one think of similar characters in Brookner. Except Brookner's heroines, who were all written after Pym's death, lead far bleaker lives than any Pym character that I have so far come across. And although Brookner is infinitely more serious, her characters share an introspectiveness (introspection?) that is not uncommon in Pym.

What say you?

In a BBC radio broadcast from April 1978 Pym herself discussed some authors who may have had an influence on her writing. At the age of 16 she was convinced she wanted to write a book just like Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. After studying at Oxford Pym discovered Elizabeth von Arnim and recognized that her work might be more a more appropriate model for her own efforts than Huxley's. Not long after that she encountered Ivy Compton-Burnett's fiction and for a time took to writing letters to a friend in ICB's distinctive dialogue heavy manner. She also gives a nod to Austen and Trollope and notes that many compare her work to theirs. But she is a little sheepish about agreeing.
But what novelist of today would dare to claim that she was influenced by such masters of our craft? Certainly all who read and love Jane Austen may try to write with the same economy of language, even try to look at their characters with her kind of detachment, but that is as far as any "influence" could go.


  1. Funnily enough, in this month's review of Pym books read, I compared both of them to Iris Murdoch, and there is the patterned dance of relationships that Murdoch also captures. Quartet in Autumn is certainly reminiscent of Brookner, but I don't think the other novels are. I'm not sure that anyone can capture, now, that faded seaside / suburban landscape and the gossiping academics. Maybe David Lodge for the academics (and the ageing)? Oh, and Victoria Clayton has some real eccentrics and odd publishing houses, and a clear, innocent voice that sometimes brings Pym to mind. Some ramblings there, anyway!

  2. I also thought of the Canadian writer Alice Munro who gives such sweet snapshots of everyday life.

    Stella Gibbons comes to mind too - esp the humour.

    I've only reading Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, but there is a similar focus on academic life, the everyday lives of two couples over time, food and philosophy.

    One of the Pym books I ordered after reading EW last weekend turned up today (An Academis Question) - just in time to read tonight :-)

  3. I think Penelope Lively has some of the same preoccupations, especially around archeologists and women's perspectives, although her writing is much more internally focused than Pym's more social content. Very British however.

    And of course Alexander McCall Smith has been greatly influenced by Pym. I think his Isabel Dalhousie novels are the most Pymmish, with a lot of observations about people's foibles.

  4. Yes, to all that have been suggested, and of course Hazel Holt whose Sheila Malory mysteries are utterly Pymmish, even more so than McCall Smith's Isobel Dalhousie series. I'd also add Catherine Fox, whose novels are set in cathedral cities/circles (albeit with some Murdoch-type bedhopping), and perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald, who's good at the little things and more immediate (less solemn) than Brookner, whom she also resembles.

  5. Oh I do a bit of Trollope : ) - there a little bit of Pymness about him. I remember feeling that Less than Angels had a slightly Murdoch feel - the anthropologists - Alaric and his masks and copious notes in the attic particulalrly. I agree about Brookner too.

  6. I googled "Barbara Pym readalikes" and a lot of websites recommended Jan Karon. I've never read her so I can't comment. E. F. Benson also came up a few times, another author on my to-read list.

    I've finished two Pyms this week and now I'm a little sad because now I have two less to read for the first time. I think I'll wait and ration them out, I don't want to rush through them too fast.

  7. Anita Brookner's Fraud reminded me of Pym, with a little morbidity added.

  8. All your suggestions work for me.... and I've enjoyed them all. Angela Thirkell also comes to mind. I recently read High Rising and though the setting is the main similarity, it reminded me of Barbara Pym without the clergy

  9. I've never read Murdoch, so can't compare there. I do think that Pym's two "serious" novels, SDD and QA, have definite Brookner similarities. And I also agree with you about Trollope. Interesting that someone mentioned Jan Karon; my mother has read and liked Karon very much, so perhaps I'll just have to investigate! Penelope Lively, hmm ... never thought of her in reference to Pym, but, yes, I do see the connection.

  10. I just published my blog post on Barbara Pym. Thanks so much for hosting this reading week. It has been great to read her again!
    I can't think of any contemporary writers who remind me of Pym. But thinking about writers of the past, I feel she has much in common with Jane Austen.

  11. I think Austen is the best comparison. they're both funny yet spiky & such great observers of character.
    My final post for the week is on the cookbook,


    Thanks again Thomas for hosting the week. It's heartening to think how many Pym fans there are in the world.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.