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"Always sincere, not always serious": Robert Liddell and Barbara Pym.

A little less than a year before his death, an account appeared in Gay Times (London, August 1991) of an interview that Robert Liddell had given to the novelist Francis King. Mr. King wrote:

Robert was a close friend of four of the most interesting women novelists of our time: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning and Barbara Pym. How would he rate them? "Ivy was a genius, Elizabeth was a gifted artist. Olivia and Barbara were story-tellers who wrote well." One can imagine Barbara Pym gratefully accepting that verdict. One can also imagine Barbara Pym being furious at it.

I do not know whether Barbara Pym would have reacted in either of the ways which Mr. King imagined, but I was surprised to read this belittling estimate of her work. The estimate could not have been ill-considered, since it was not spoken casually, and it reflected similar assessments which Robert had made in conversation and writing. But however carefully Robert had given this opinion and however firmly he held it, he was, I suggest, rash to make a comparison and ungenerous to express so simplistic a conclusion about a fellow writer with whom he had been associated in friendship for over fifty years and to whom he had given much friendly criticism, advice, and encouragement. Nor does his estimate accord with opinions of Barbara's work which he had published after her rediscovery and her death, when he was coming, gradually and somewhat reluctantly, to terms with the importance that critics, especially in America, were according to her work.(2)

Barbara Pym met Robert Liddell at Oxford in 1933, through Henry Harvey, a post-graduate at Oxford. From 1933 to 1938 Robert was an assistant in the Department of Western Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library. It was here that he came upon the letters of Mark Pattison which provided the theme, and much of the material, for his first published novel, The Almond Tree (1938). Meanwhile Barbara's attachment to Henry Harvey extended into a comradely affection for Robert. She was impressed by the knowledge, wit, and self-confidence of the two young men, only a few years older than she was, and, as we know from A Very Private Eye (Holt and Pym 10), she felt "intellectually inferior" to them.(3) Yet despite this excessive modesty, she was already developing her own tastes in English literature and was encouraged in these by her two friends, particularly by Robert. From the late summer of 1934, when Henry Harvey left for Finland, Robert assumed greater importance in her life, and a correspondence began between them which lasted until her death in 1980.(4) In a letter to Henry Harvey in 1936 she analyzes this triangular relationship, and concludes: "But however much Jock [Robert] may be responsible for the state of affairs between us, I can never forget that he saved me a great deal of unhappiness by his way of looking at things, which I adopted too, at least in our correspondence and conversation. It is an amusing game . . . (Holt and Pym 56-57). This tells us that it was from Robert, at least in part, that Barbara learn to meet her problems, especially her emotional problems, with a rueful, amused acceptance, externalizing them in a way which she tried, not always successfully, to maintain throughout her life. It is an outlook which permeates and characterizes her novels, and one which was remarked upon by Philip Larkin, who wrote that in her books "Amusement is constantly foiling more pretentious emotion. But emotion is there all the same" (Required 241). It is, I think, in this somewhat imponderable quality of Barbara Pym's work that we may recognize the literary influence of Robert Liddell, rather than in the admiration which both gave to the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett and to Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper.

As well as the departure of Henry Harvey for Finland, summer 1934 saw Barbara Pym beginning her career as a novelist as she wrote the first version of Some Tame Gazelle. This lighthearted book, intended as an imaginary portrait of herself, her sister Hilary, and their friends in their middle age, went through several recessions before the Second World War. Robert delighted in the work, which he saw at all stages, made many suggestions for its revision, and encouraged Barbara in her efforts to find a publisher (Liddell A Mind 11-16). As early as July 1934 he was writing to Barbara that "Henry and I think you are a very great novelist and implore you to continue your story - we long to know more about Barbara and Hilary and the Archdeacon's family and Miss Tracy and Dr. Liddell. Henry thinks you are far greater than Miss Austen. I don't quite agree, though I place you well above Brontes" (MSS Pym 153, RL to BP, 30 July 1934). This, of course, was not quite serious, and at another time he was urging her to make the book "a little more professional, and less home-made" (RL to BP, 24 June 1940). He also encouraged her to continue attempts to set a novel in Helsingfors (as it was then called), writing to her for example in 1937, "Pray go on with your Finnish novel" (RL to BP, 16 Nov. 1937), although the following year he was so critical of the Finland novel that she was reduced to tears (February 1938: A Very 64).(5) In the meantime Robert was following The Almond Tree by publishing Kind Relations (1939) and The Gantillons (1940). Barbara had read and commented on the manuscripts of both these books (MSS Pym 158, n.d., filed in 1936; 155, RL to BP, 4 May 1940). From this period too comes the long letter to Barbara in which Robert describes his visit in March 1939 to Crete, reproduced in the first pages of his Aegean Greece (1954).

The six years of the War then intervened. For a few months Robert was teaching English at the university of Helsinki, whence he returned to England early in 1940. "The journey was uneventful," he wrote to Barbara in March (155, RL to BP, 9 Mar. 1940) - although in later years in Athens he was to speak feelingly of his dreadful trip around the wintry Gulf of Bothnia shortly before the end of the Russo-Finnish war. A conscientious objector, he maintained a detached and lofty attitude toward world events. Already greatly attached to Greece, he wrote to Barbara from Oxford that he would prefer to help in any war in which the Greeks might be involved, as it would be "far more entertaining" than taking part in "our own nasty western war" (155, RL to BP, 26 March 1940). A couple of months later he wrote again to Barbara that "Like you I find History excessively trying in the making. . . . If Herr Hitler wins, I hope you will find many Friedberts, and then do your best for us all" (155, RL to BP, 17 May 1940). But soon he succeeded in obtaining a post with the British Council in Athens, from where he was evacuated to Egypt in April 1941. His letter to Barbara from Cairo that Whitsunday is full of nostalgia for Greece and his flat "on the slopes of the Acropolis" (155, RL to BP). There is then a gap in the extant correspondence which lasts until June 1944, when Robert wrote from Alexandria, where he was now teaching in the university: "Do not let us get out of touch again" (RL to BP, 20 June 1944). Meanwhile Barbara, uninfluenced by a suggestion from Robert's brother Donald that she too should register as a conscientious objector (153, Donald Liddell to BP, 12 March 1941), served as a civilian in the Censorship Department and later as a Wren, being posted to Naples in September 1944.

The following spring, soon after Barbara had returned to England from Italy, Robert wrote from Egypt: "I am glad you are working at Some Tame Gazelle. . . . Like me, your writing self is solidly rooted in the past and lives largely on memories" (155, qtd. in Holt A Lot to Ask 143). Later that year he was again in England, and after meeting Jonathan Cape, who recollected having seen the manuscript of Gazelle before the war, he suggested to the publisher that he should consider a revised version of the book. He wrote again to Barbara: "Be careful about quotations from English literature before 1500. . . . Take Mr. Cape's wish for malice seriously. Proust, you know, went round all his characters making them worse. . . . Tidy up points of style and matter that now seem to you to be lacking in maturity" (155, RL to BP, 7 Aug. 1945). I do not know how far Barbara followed, or needed to follow, this advice, but she eventually produced a more tightly constructed manuscript (I follow Mrs. Holt's account here), omitting the Nazi and Finnish characters, as Robert had suggested, and introducing a colonial bishop whose African experiences presumably reflect Barbara's anthropological interests, acquired since she took up a post at the International African Institute in 1946. Even so, it was not until 1949 that Some Tame Gazelle was submitted to and accepted by Cape; it was published the following year and received appreciative reviews. Robert was ecstatic in his rejoicing: "I think it is nearly the most perfect thing in nature. . . . The wonderful thing is that you haven't spoiled it" (156, RL to BP, Quinquagesima [sic] 1950). Then, "Who knows if my own sales may not be improved by association with yours? I suppose we have influenced each other, and I hope only for good" (RL to BP, Whitsunday 1950). Robert - who so often hymned the virtues of the unmarried state - was at this time delighted to learn that, just as Belinda shared a flat with Harriet in her novel, Barbara was now sharing a flat with Hilary. This arrangement, at first a temporary convenience, proved to be a permanent and happy one, which must also have often reminded Robert of the life which he had shared in the Banbury Road at Oxford with his brother Donald (who had been killed in Normandy in 1944).

With the final revision of Some Tame Gazelle the direct influence of Robert Liddell on Barbara Pym's writing - the period in which she may almost be described as his protegee - came to an end. Although she continued to admire Robert as a writer and critic, as well as cherishing him as a friend, she relied henceforth on the approach to the writing of fiction which she had worked out, and continued to work out, for herself. So far as I know, she sent no more manuscripts to Robert for criticism, although she did show them to friends nearer at hand and during her unhappy "time of silence" she welcomed comments by Philip Larkin among others, on drafts of Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Over the next eleven years, between 1950 and 1961, she published with Cape the five novels which, with the addition of Gazelle, make up the "canon," to use Robert's phrase which usefully distinguishes the first from the second period of Barbara's published authorship. Copies of all these books went to Robert and were received by him with an enthusiasm which only slightly faltered in the case of the last, No Fond Return of Love (1961), about which he wrote to her, "a delightful novel - I loved the private hotel, and all the search. But I do not like your heroine carrying on with a divorced man" (MSS Pym 156, RL to BP 27 Mar. 1952, 3 Apr. 1954, 27 Oct. 1955, 23 Apr. 1958, 157, RL to BP, 27 Feb. 1961).

Robert followed his three pre-war novels with Watering Place (1947), a collection of sketches of provincial life, The Last Enchantments (1948), set in North Oxford and probably his best novel, Unreal City (1952), and The Rivers of Babylon (1959). By now he and Barbara were both established novelists, each interested in and appreciative of the other's work, and although Robert remained obstinately abroad (in Egypt until 1953 and after that in Athens) they maintained a steady exchange of letters. Between 1964 and 1976 Barbara paid five short visits to Greece, mainly to see Robert. During these years Robert was also establishing his credentials as a critic in the field of modern, mainly English, literature with A Treatise on the Novel (1947), followed by Some Principles of Fiction (1953), and studies of Ivy Compton-Burnett (1955), Jane Austen (1963), C. P. Cavafy (1974), and George Eliot (1977). He also published three substantial descriptions of his travels in Greece (1954, 1958, 1965), and an account of Byzantium and Istanbul (1956), in all these drawing on his background as a classical scholar.

Then, on St. Joseph's Day (Robert liked to date his letters like this) in 1962, Robert wrote to Barbara that he was having difficulties with Cape,(6) presumably over the publication of his Mainland Greece. These troubles had begun, he thought, when Cape had "greedily" overprinted The Morea, and now he was hearing horror stories about the new regime at Cape under Tom Maschler (MSS Pym 157, 17 Mar. 1962, 1 May 1962). He was able, however, to find other publishers for his books, but meanwhile he had sounded a warning for Barbara. In March 1963 the blow fell on her with the rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment by Cape, and then by a series of other publishers. There followed for her thirteen years of frustration and disappointment, Lenten years of silence during which she was unable to publish her new work. During all this time she received abundant sympathy and encouragement from her friends and from admirers, known and unknown to her, of her work. In particular she was supported by letters from Robert and from Philip Larkin, both of whom were ready with suggestions about and introductions to a succession of publishers - but to no avail. Robert, for his part, was able to publish three novels in the 1960's: An Object for a Walk (1966), The Deep End (1968), and Stepsons (1969), all brought out by Longmans. The first of these was much shortened and its material rearranged to meet suggestions by the publisher, a compliance later much regretted by Robert. Then after the publication (by Duckworth) of his study of George Eliot in 1977, which was the year of the rediscovery of Barbara Pym, some nine years passed before Robert's writing was again in print. Thus the situations of Robert and Barbara were reversed, although Robert's absence from the publishing scene was in part due (so he told me) to his reluctance to engage further in the writing of fiction.(7)

The rediscovery of Barbara Pym, novelist, in January 1977 was greeted with enormous pleasure by all Barbara's friends, including Robert (Holt and Pym, 293-94, MSS Pym 158, RL to BP, 17 Feb. 1977). In less than a month there followed Macmillan's acceptance of Quartet in Autumn. Robert wrote:

I am absolutely delighted and hardly know whom to congratulate most on your return to the shelves - you and Hilary, of course, and Macmillan for securing an author who ought to do more to console them for the loss of Miss Manning. . . . Ultimately I think our kind of books date the least - and once "up to date" is speedily out of date: (Holt 254)

But Robert had not seen the manuscript of Quartet and was as yet unaware that this and a second novel, The Sweet Dove Died, which Barbara had ready for submission, were markedly different in character from those of the canon. Quartet appeared in autumn 1977, during Barbara's annus mirabilis, and The Sweet Dove Died a year later, both meeting with a widely favorable reception from readers and critics, although some of the former may have felt some disappointment that Barbara's work had undergone this change. Quartet was particularly praised by Robert, who now wrote to Barbara, "I do admire the progress and development it shows . . . and I think you are brave and clever to beat at this new track - the same and yet not the same" (Holt 259). Before she died, Barbara had finished, if not to her entire satisfaction, her novel of farewell, A Few Green Leaves. This, a return to the style and atmosphere of the canon, was published in 1980, a few months after her death, and was dedicated to Hilary and to Robert Liddell.(8) Its reception was kindly rather than enthusiastic, low-key except for a hostile review by Bernard Levin, who eccentrically concluded that the book "did little but reinforce [his] long-held belief that the best thing we could do with the countryside is to cover it with an even layer of asphalt' (Sunday Times, 27 July 1980). Robert wrote to me that he considered it 'not as a novel but a sort of amiable village chronicle, and an epilogue - not part of the canon" (3 Dec. 1986).

All this coincided with the first years of Robert's own "time of silence" when he was no longer finding the ready offers of publication to which he had been used. In a letter to me he described how in "rejecting a humble work" of his own which he had inscribed to Barbara, the publisher had added to his rejection slip the words "impressed by the dedication." "Well", Robert reflected, "exultant humiles" (RL to RS, 13 Dec. 1978). Barbara's death brought no halt to the revival of her work or to her increasing reputation. The next seven years saw the posthumous publication of her last book, A Few Green Leaves (1980), and then of the previously rejected An Unsuitable Attachment (1982), Crampton Hodnet (1985) - which Barbara had long before laid aside - An Academic Question (1986), also previously rejected for publication, and the collection of youthful pieces entitled Civil to Strangers (1987). Robert considered all this activity to be mistaken, and damaging to Barbara's reputation. He told me, "An Unsuitable Attachment . . . is a very bad book - and had it been accepted when Barbara offered it that would probably have been the end of her literary career." He inclined to the view that Barbara's publication trials had instead contributed to her evolution as a novelist. Crampton Hodnet, he continued, "ought to be suppressed because the use Barbara made of it shows that she kept it as a possible storehouse" (RL to RS, Dec. 1986).(9) All this was "trying to get more gravy out of the joint," killing "the goose that laid the golden eggs," "scraping the meat off Barbara's bones," and similar disagreeable metaphors, to which I allude only to emphasize the depth of Robert's indignation (RL to RS 6 Sept. 1954, 27 Feb. 1991).

He was even more disturbed by the publication in 1984 of A Very Private Eye, compiled by Barbara's executors. He declared himself outraged by the exposure to public eye of the private lives of Barbara and her friends in this "dreadful book." Letters were private documents, meant only for the recipient's eye and protected by copyright, which belonged to the writer.(10) The Bodleian should be threatened by an injunction. "The only proper course to take on the recipient's death is to destroy all letters she received, unread (as Rose Macaulay directed in her will). 'It is up to you, as you live there [he told me] to see that Bodley is behaving properly. I think of you found you had access to a volume you would be perfectly justified in tearing out your letters and mine and destroying them'" (a surprising suggestion from a former librarian). "But the way they are going on will turn [Barbara] into a Marie Corelli or Elinor Glyn." "We allowed Barbara to be betrayed" (RL to RS, 12 June 1984, 23 June 1984, 13 July 1984, 15 Aug. 1986, 15 Nov. 1996.) And so on, almost until the end of our correspondence, which was the end of Robert's life. All this ill-will was exacerbated by the surge of mainly American interest in and appreciative criticism of Barbara's work - what Robert called "Pym-study" and the "Pym cult."(11) Meanwhile Robert seemed forgetful (until I reminded him) of the use which he was allowing Hilary Spurling to make, with very good effect, of his own letters from Ivy Compton-Burnett and from Elizabeth Taylor in the second volume of her life of the former (1984),(12) while his Elizabeth and Ivy (1986) is partly based on his letters from Mrs. Taylor.(13)

It is difficult not to find an explanation of Robert's obsessive hostility toward the expansion of interest in Barbara's work in his own situation. He had rejoiced in her rediscovery and had welcomed the unexpected course which her writing had taken in Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Dies. Now there came the almost too often-told account of her trials at the hands of publishers and of the successful outcome, the surge of critical work and the publication of manuscripts which Barbara had confined to her cupboard. Although Robert had chosen to live far from the centers of English literary life, all this must have increased a feeling that his own long and distinguished career in letters was ending in obscurity. Yet this cannot be the whole or even the greater part of the explanation. Robert had loved and admired Barbara, and rightly or wrongly looked on her as his protegee, and now he had some reason for his conviction that much of the work being published under her name was unworthy of her; moreover, this would not (he contended) have been wanted by her, since she had already "plundered" it in the creation of characters and situations in subsequent work; indeed, it could only damage her reputation. Second, Robert had built up his own idiosyncratic picture of Barbara: an almost idealized Barbara, devout Anglo-Catholic, dedicated to a single life, whose emotions, unlike those of the undergraduate of St. Hilda's, were strictly controlled. This prim ideal could hardly be sustained against the lively, flesh-and-blood, almost "flighty" Barbara, in both her youth and her middle age, who emerges from the pages of A Very Private Eye. Thus Robert welcomed the measured and sober account which Hazel Holt gives in her biography, a work whose main virtue in his opinion was that it "corrected" the picture in the earlier publication of (in the words of a gossipy monk) "a naughty lady."(14) Meanwhile Robert continued to mock "the vulgar Pym cult." Why not, he asked, sell Pym pullovers inscribed "Make Tea Not Love" or Pym prayer books? "The only legitimate research left it seems to me," he wrote, "is linguistic, e.g., 'Barbara Pym and the present participle passive'" (RL to RS, 5 Dec. 1984).

Notwithstanding these sour comments, all made privately, Robert was himself ready to join in "the vulgar Pym cult," although doing so always in the belief that literary criticism should be "a part of polite letters" (RL to RS, 31 July 1987). His first contribution was an article in the London Magazine in 1984 entitled "Two Friends: Barbara Pym and Ivy Compton-Burnett." This reviewed A Very Private Eye and the second volume of Hilary Spurling's life of Dame Ivy, without making any cross-reference between either his two friends or the two books.(15) In the course of his review he remarks that his own letters from Barbara would have made a valuable addition had he not been "scared into destroying letters" by hearing that Olivia Manning had sold nearly all the letters she had received from him to a university library in the United States. (He makes no reference to the fate of his own from Ivy Compton-Burnett(16)). He then deals severely with those who venture to compare Barbara Pym with Jane Austen: "No one should be compared with Jane Austen, for no one has (as far as I know) produced her astonishing polyphonic effects."(17) The quality which he does allow both writers is "cosiness," a quality which some were foolish enough to despise. With regard to Barbara, he hopes that henceforth "It will be impossible for thesis-mongers - and she has already attracted their notice - to write about her social or political views for, unfashionably, she had none. Sex is also underplayed in her books" this to Robert's evident approval.

Three years later Robert's chapter "A Success Story" appeared in Dale Salwak's collection of essays about Barbara Pym. In this his love and regard for Barbara came to the fore. What mattered now, it seemed, was that "Barbara was a good woman - brave and patient and firmly religious" (178). He then arrived at his formula for explaining why some people who thought Barbara to have been "frustrated" and others who thought her novels superficial, were mistaken. "Barbara, who was always sincere, often delighted in not being serious," a formula to which he returned elsewhere. (RL to RS, 15 May 1987, 12 July 1987).

Finally, Robert came to write his own "Pymbook" - hesitantly, wondering if he "might by prayer and effort, get the tone exactly right" (RL to RS, 20 June 1987). He then set out on a more ambitious attempt than hitherto to assess the qualities that had led to Barbara's success. I read at least two drafts of this book and so shared in Robert's relief when it was accepted for publication, to appear in 1989. "I think Barbara has done much to liberate the novel from Marx and Freud," Robert had written to me (RL to RS, Feb. 1988), but in the event A Mind at Ease eschews any reference to politics or psychology. Robert realized that he had come late on the scene; this meant, he claimed, that he had thus "more nonsense to correct" (RL to RS, 28 Oct. 1988), and this, I fear, included what he called "dressing down the yanks" (RL to RS, 30 Aug. 1988). Yet the tone of the book is mild, although at one point Robert deals sharply, and probably rather unfairly, with Professor Muriel Schultz, the author of the essay in Dr. Salwak's collection on "The Novelist as Anthropologist" whose acceptance of Jean-Pierre in Less Than Angels as a serious student of anthropology he found absurd. Indeed, he was sceptical of Barbara's own role in anthropology. In 1987 he had written to me:.

At present I am cogitating the subject of Anthropology. It seems to me that Barbara only learned a few words and phrases (as she said), and that her "investigations," though analogous to those of the anthropologists, differ in purpose, object and method so much that most of the comparisons made are useless, and rather misleading (RL to RS 17 Sept. 1987)

Those who know A Mind at Ease may have found its method pedestrian,(18) describing as it does each novel in turn, chapter by chapter, in the order in which they were written. Robert also omits mention of either An Academic Question or Civil to Strangers, and makes only three or four references, all in footnotes, to A Very Private Eye. On the canon, however, he makes a number of arresting general points, including a perceptive study of the element of fantasy or "play" in the novels (100-03). Yet the contrast with his analytical treatment of Ivy Compton-Burnett's work in his short book of 1955 is marked. He makes, for example, only one stylistic appraisal of the canon where he comments:

The writing is simple, and appears unstudied, though it has usually been revised with care. It is generally concrete, going into considerable detail, and we are well aware of what the people eat and what clothes they wear. This helps to create the world that is Barbara's achievement. (104)

Nevertheless, Robert's method works well enough, and he says what he thought was needed, and with force and elegance. To be sure, he does not give any opinion (as he did so succinctly, so brutally, in the Gay Times interview) as to Barbara Pym's "placing" in the literary hierarchy. On the other hand he does provide a comparative estimate of her books. Excellent Women he considers "the best novel in the 'canon', while No Fond Return of Love he judges to be the weakest, a "falling off" from its predecessors. The heroine of the latter, Dulcie (who reminds me poignantly of Barbara herself) had "an inferior name," was a "suburban dweller," was "not a regular church-goer," and at the end of the book was "tempted to marry a divorced man" - unexpected criteria for a literary judgment. In A Glass of Blessings it is the (in fact, rather thin) religious element which he especially praises. Of The Sweet Dove Died he concludes that it was Barbara's "best book up till now but there is something lacking that was never lacking in the 'canon' - it is the element of desirable life." Of Quartet in Autumn he writes that "this fine uncomfortable book" was "her strongest finest work" while "darker and sadder" than her others. His summing-up occurs in the introduction to his book where he asks "What is the secret of her spell?" and answers:

Her books often seem to come to us like gifts of nature, like the air we breathe or the water we drink (but purer and more wholesome). I do not know what a critic would find to say about them if others had not been in the field before him, and had made errors that needed correction. (8)

To me this seems to confront and to give an answer to an essential question about the compelling attraction of Barbara Pym's work.(19) A Mind at Ease was the fourth of Robert's books to be published by Peter Owen. It was this firm which had ended his nine years' absence from the publishing scene (four years less than Barbara Pym's "time of silence") by bringing out in 1986 his short celebration of his friendships with Ivy Compton-Burnett and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1991 his North Oxford novel, The Last Enchantments, was reprinted and received good notices.(20) Meanwhile the University of Athens had awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in October 1987 (coinciding with his seventy-ninth birthday) and in 1990 his colleague Professor C. E. Evangelidis published his useful work Robert Liddell, Novelist and Critic (Giannikos, Athens).(21) "I am not expecting a Pym resurrection," Robert wrote to me on 18 Dec. 1991, and I detected a note of hope there. The following spring Stepsons was republished, again to good reviews, and Owen was considering further reprints. An earthly resurrection was certainly in progress, and continues today, although attention has sometimes been directed more at Robert's fictional portrayal of a sexually ambivalent social scene than at, for example, the Catholic framework within which his novels are deliberately, sometimes obtrusively, set,(22) or at his achievement as a critic and a travel writer - aspects which he would have preferred to be emphasized. But for Robert himself this resurrection went no further. On 23 July 1993 he died. As I stood by his grave in an Athens cemetery(23) the following Christmas Eve, I reflected on this self-imposed exile and his comparative obscurity - obscurity compared, that is, with the fame which Barbara's happier genius brought her at the end. But now I think of them both on Oxford, and for a moment it seems that the long summer days of 1933 and 1934 are come again: under the tress of the Banbury Road, among the desks of the English Reading Room, in the quadrangle of Corpus Christi, on the lawns of St. Hilda's.


1. This is the text, slightly amended, of an address to The Barbara Pym Literary Weekend at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, on 21 August 1993.

2 In The Times Literary Supplement of 19 March 1993, 21, Mr. J. L. L. Walker, reviewing the reprint of Robert Liddell's Unreal City, wrote that this novel "deserves to rank with the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Barbara Pym."

3 The source of this quotation from Barbara Pym is not revealed in A Very.

4 Barbara Pym's letters from Robert Liddell are now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, catalogued as MSS Pym 153-158. There are some 300 letters, the first dated 15 March 1934 and the last dated "O Sapientia" (16 or 17 December) 1979. There is a gap in the correspondence between Whitsunday 1941 and 20 June 1944. The files containing these letters from RL include in addition several from BP herself (which must have been returned to her from RL), several from Donald Liddell, RL's brother, a few from Henry Harvey, and three very short letters from Ivy Compton-Burnett to RL (see notes 12 and 16 below). RL often but not always made a point of destroying the letters he received. Until 1944 both RL and Donald L addressed BP in their letters as "Dear Pym" or "My dear Pym." From 1944 RL began his letters "Dearest Barbara."

5 Several references in the Liddell-Pym correspondence show that RL took a keen interest in the progress of BP's story about "Adam and Cassandra."

6 Except for The Novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, published by Gollancz in 1955, all RL's books, both fiction and nonfiction, had been published by Cape. After The Morea in the 1958 and The Rivers of Babylon in 1959, Cape published nothing else by RL.

7 Nevertheless RL's literary remains apparently include at least two manuscript novels or parts of novels.

8 Of BP's novels only four carry dedications: Excellent Women, "To my sister," No Fond Return of Love, "To Hazel Holt," The Sweet Dove Died, "To R.," A Few Green Leaves, "For my sister Hilary and for Robert Liddell this story of an imaginary village."

9 In A Mind at Ease RL denies having seen Crampton Hodnet in 1940 and considers that "This book would hardly have found a publisher but for Barbara's reputation, to which it can do neither harm nor good" (22-24). His letters in the Bodleian, however, correct this. On 11 April 1940 he asked BP that the manuscript should be sent to him as soon as possible, acknowledged receipt of the manuscript on 16 April, and on 4 May wrote to BP that "Crampton Hodnet can be a very nice book" (MSS Pym 155).

10 Henry Harvey has written to me that neither he nor RL liked "the prospect of their private lives being made public and [they] resisted what became A Very Private Eye for a long time. It was RL who succumbed first to the pressures to stop being old-fashioned, leaving whether being old-fashioned is being better-fashioned or not to God to decide, and HH followed suit" (private communication to RS, 23 June 1993).

11 For example: R. E. Long, Barbara Pym (1986); Diana Benet, Something to Love (1986); D. Salwak (ed.), The Life and Work of Barbara Pym (1987); Janice Rossen, The World of Barbara Pym (1987); Lotus Snow, One Little Room an Everywhere (1987); Charles Burkhart, The Pleasure of Miss Pym (1987); Janice Rossen, Independent Women (1988).

12 There are some seventeen references to letters from Ivy Compton-Burnett to RL in Hilary Spurling's Secrets of a Woman's Heart (1984).

13 In Elizabeth and Ivy, RL explains that Elizabeth Taylor acceded to his request that he might keep some of her letters to him which were of literary interest. "I rather hope I may get those concerned to invite me to do you in the Authors and their Works series - though I haven't done anything about it - I might then like to quote a bit or two out of a letter (e.g. about Ivy), but I devoutly hope that you will be able to censor the thing for yourself" (34). Mrs. Taylor died in November 1975. Subsequently RL lent the letters to Mrs. Spurling for use in Secrets of a Woman's Heart which has ten specific references to them (see 321, n. 43). RL himself used them to much effect in Elizabeth and Ivy two years later - a book in which he makes one reference to BP, referring to her as "the excellent and long unjustly neglected novelist" (20).

14 An incident at Prinknash Abbey related to me by Henry Harvey.

15 The meaning is "two friends of RL." BP and Ivy Compton-Burnett never met although in 1950 RL, writing to BP about Some Tame Gazelle, had added, "I hope you will soon make your debut in Braemar Mansions [Dame Ivy's flat!" (MSS Pym 156, RL to BP, Quinquagesima 1950). RL never offered to effect an introduction and BP never asked for one.

16 The fate of Ivy Compton-Burnett's letters to RL is puzzling. Two very short letters and a postcard from IC-B to RL have found their way into the Pyro archive at the Bodleian: MSS Pym 153, IC-B to RL 6 Apr. 19407; 13 Apr. 1940; 16 Apr. 1940. In the last IC-B writes, "Dear Sir, I should like very much to read your essay." Alan Bird recalls (in a private communication) having negotiated the sale for RL in 1975-1976 of some letters from IC-B to RL to the London bookseller Bertram Rota. He recollected also that these letters were neither numerous nor of much apparent interest, and he had no idea of their present whereabouts. This does not seem to account for the fate of the seventeen or so letters cited by Hilary Spurling.

17 RL described these effects as taking place when "a speech is simultaneously understood in several different ways by different characters" ("Two Friends" 64).

18 Rosemary Stoyle (1989) complained fiercely of the book's negative character.

19 Philip Larkin sheds even more light on this "secret" (243-44).

20 The following books by Robert Liddell have been published by Peter Owen: Elizabeth and Ivy (1986); The Aunts (1987); Ferdinand Fabre, The Abbe Tigranee, translation (1988); A Mind at Ease: Barbara Pym and Her Novels (1989); Twin Spirits: The Novels of Emily and Anne Bronte (1989); The Last Enchantments (rep. 1993); Stepsons (rep. 1992); Unreal City (rep. 1993); The Deep End (rep. 1994).

21 This was not the first critical work on Robert Liddell, that being J.P. Talsethagen's unpublished thesis, Robert Liddell's Theory and Practice of Fiction, University of Oslo, 1969.

22 Since this essay was written, J. V. Guerinot has assessed Robert Liddell's fiction from a Catholic point of view.

23 Robert Liddell is buried in plot 10305 in the cemetery at Zographou, a suburb on the lower slopes of Mount Hymettus.


Guerinot, J. V. "The Exiled Sons of Eve: Robert Liddell's Egyptian Novels." Blackfriars (Oxford) 1994.

Larkin, Philip. "The World of Barbara Pym." Required Writing. New York, Farrar, 1984.

Liddell, Robert. Elizabeth and Ivy. London: Owen, 1986.

Liddell, Robert. Letters to Robert Smith. Unpublished.

-----. A Mind at Ease: Barbara Pym and Her Novels. London: Owen, 1989.

-----. "Two Friends." London Magazine 24 (1984): 64.

Pym, Barbara. A Very Private Eye. An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters. Ed. Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. New York: Dutton, 1984.

-----. Civil to Strangers and Other Writings. Ed. Hazel Holt. New York: Dutton, 1988.

-----. Letters from and to Robert Liddell. Oxford: Bodleian Library (MSS Pym). (See note 4.)

Spurling, Hilary. Secrets of a Woman's Heart. London: Hodder, 1984.

Salwak, Dale, ed. The Life and Work of Barbara Pym. Iowa City, 1987.

Stoyle, Rosemary. Review of A Mind at Ease by Robert Liddell. Literary Review February 1989.
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Author:Smith, Robert
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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