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Barbara Pym in Henley.

Barbara Pym (1913-1990) has been described as one of the finest of modern English novelists, with novels of English gentlewomen so reminiscent of Jane Austen. She read English at St. Hilda's College Oxford (1931-1934) and served during World War II in the Wrens. She never married. After the War she worked at the International African Institute as Assistant Editor of the Institute's journal. She retired in 1974 and moved to Finstock in Oxfordshire where she lived with her sister until her death.

Barbara Pym's publishing history was as extraordinary as her life was ordinary (or apparently so). Her first six novels were published by Jonathan Cape: Some Tame Gazelle (1950); Excellent Women (1952); Jane and Prudence (1953); Less Than Angels (1955); A Glass of Blessings (1958); No Fond Return of Love (1961). Sales were respectable but not remarkable. Then, in 1963, Cape, now under the aegis of a new editor, Tom Maschler, turned down her seventh novel An Unsuitable Attachment. Thereafter, for sixteen years, she was unpublished although she continued to write and to submit manuscripts to publishers. And those novels already published were still read and admired. Then, in January 1977, The Times Literary Supplement published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Barbara Pym was the only writer to be named twice, by Philip Larkin the poet and Lord David Cecil the literary critic and former Goldsmith's Professor of English Literature at Oxford. Overnight Barbara became 'republishable'. Three weeks later Macmillan accepted her novel Quartet in Autumn (1977) which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Macmillan published The Sweet Dove Died in 1978. A Few Green Leaves was published posthumously in 1980; this was followed by works written earlier (sometimes much earlier, i.e. pre-war): An Unsuitable Attachment (1982), Crampton Hodnet (1985), An Academic Question (1986) and Civil to Strangers (short stories etc.) (1987), all published by Macmillan as were A Very Private Eye (1984), extracts from her diaries, letters and notebooks, edited by Hazel Holt, and the biography A Lot to Ask by Hazel Holt (1990). The novels were also published in paperback.

Throughout her life she kept diaries and notebooks in which she recorded her observations of all that happened around her. These were the raw material for all her novels. In her diary for the 14th July 1978, she wrote '... dinner with Henry [Harvey] and the Barnicots. Forty years and more I have known them, I thought as I sat there talking.'

This is the only post-War reference in A Very Private Eye to Barbara's continuing friendship with my parents John and Elizabeth Barnicot. Yet there must be many more in her unpublished diaries for Barbara stayed with us in our house in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, on a number of occasions.

There are, of course, many pre-War references to my father in A Very Private Eye. He had met Barbara at Oxford where he, like her, was one of a group on which many of the characters in Some Tame Gazelle are based. (Although the book was not published until 1950, she had completed a first draft after coming down from Oxford.) Other members of that group included Henry Harvey with whom she had been very much in love while at Oxford [Archdeacon Hoccleve] and Robert 'Jock' Liddell [Dr. Nicholas Parnell]. Henry often visited us in Henley and his second wife, Susi, stayed with us for some weeks before their wedding. Sadly, Henry died in October 1995. Robert Liddell I never met although he was my godfather.

The character in Some Tame Gazelle for whom my father was the inspiration was John Akenside. Akenside is dead - killed by a stray bullet in a riot in Prague - before the story starts but is mourned by his friend Count Riccardo Bianco (based on another of Barbara's friends). Like Akenside my father had travelled extensively in the Balkans in the early thirties. After that, so far from being shot, accidentally or otherwise, he returned to Oxford where he worked in the Bodleian specialising in Old Slavonic books. That was when he got to know Barbara. In 1938 he married my mother and they went to the United States and lived in New York until they returned to the United Kingdom and bought the house in Henley - Appletree Cottage, New Street - where they lived until my father's death in 1981.

How much of my father is in John Akenside? Some, certainly. There is the Balkan connection. And the physical description, '... a twinkle in the eyes, which seemed to look slyly round the corner of the rimless glasses, and the mouth ... curled into a half-smile, self-conscious but at the same time a little defiant.' But much of Akenside is pure fantasy: the white central European court dress, the row of medals, the finger in nearly every European political pie. My father was a modest, cautious, extremely shy man but he did have a strong sense of humour and a love of the ridiculous: I am sure he found Barbara's picture of him as a character out of one of John Buchan's wilder flights of fancy extremely amusing.

The same cannot be said of Roberto Weiss, the real-life Italian (despite the Austrian surname) count on whom Count Riccardo Bianco is based. He also had been part of the Liddell-Harvey circle in pre-War Oxford where he had been a well-known 'character' famous for, among other things, falling hopelessly in love with women who did not return his feelings. Unlike his fictional counterpart he did marry (in 1936) and by the time we came to Henley he and his family were already well-established there. He was Professor of Italian Language and Literature in London University until his death in 1969. According to my mother Roberto never forgave Barbara for her picture of him, refused to meet her when she came to Henley to stay with us, and would not read any of her novels. Presumably he could not appreciate that a novelist may use a real-life character as the foundation for a fictitious one, but the end result bears about as much resemblance to its origin as the King Arthur of Malory or Tennyson does to his Dark Ages reality.

This leads me on to speculate that my father may have been the starting point for another of Barbara's minor characters: Apfelbaum, the incomprehensibly Teutonic anthropologist in Excellent Women and Less than Angels. This is my chain of reasoning: my mother subscribed to the New Statesman, a leftish political weekly which had (and still has) a competition calling for the ability to do pastiches, word-plays etc. She frequently entered for the competition, using the pseudonym Appletree (after our house), often with success. My father also entered for the competition at least twice (although he didn't care for either the politics or the tone of the New Staggers as it was known) and won both times. His soubriquet was Apfelbaum. I feel sure that Barbara knew the story, seized on the name and invented a character to go with it. Indeed, it is quite possible that she and my parents created the Apfelbaum persona together: it is just the sort of teasing game for the imagination which all three would have enjoyed immensely.

Certainly my parents enjoyed Barbara's visits to Henley very much. They both had a keen interest in the arts and current affairs and they admired her novels greatly. My mother's recollection is that the conversation was always lively and stimulating, fast-flowing and witty. I was too young to take part in all this but I do remember her physical presence. She was tall, like at least one of her heroines - Mildred, in Excellent Women - with mid-brown hair and bright, noticing eyes. I think she had a tendency to lean forward slightly from the waist, perhaps because she was tall, perhaps because she spent so much of her time at a desk either at work or while writing. Her figure I remember as trim, neither thin or fat. Cardigans, blouses and skirts are what I recall her wearing: not particularly fashionable but with a quiet, neat elegance. 'Well turned out' is perhaps the most appropriate phrase.

What I particularly remember about Barbara was an air of watchfulness as if behind that quiet, unobtrusive facade a formidable intelligence was observing, taking notes, analysing, distilling. This was what set Barbara apart from my parents' other friends and made her so memorable.

I don't think that everyone was aware of this extra dimension of Barbara. My mother recounts that she asked her sister and the wife of Count Weiss (in spite of the Count's disapproval) to meet Barbara and they were surprised and pleased to discover that she was' unpretentious and unassuming - they had assumed that as a successful writer she would be quite the reverse. It would not have occurred to either of them that she might be summing them up rather more shrewdly.

Did our house feature in her novels? Not so as to be recognised. Appletree Cottage was old (part 16th century, part 18th), cold and damp. The spare room in which Jane, in Jane and Prudence, installs Prudence bears a strong resemblance to my brother's room which was used as a spare room when he was away at school. But the early 1950s were a more spartan time than now and a lot of spare rooms must have been equally cold and uncomfortable.

There is one reference in Barbara's novels which definitely has a Henley connection. In Less Than Angels Professor Mainwaring and Miss Clovis receive the candidates for the Foresight grants in the Professor's house, a hideous, red-brick Gothic extravaganza with turrets and lancet windows and a friar's head as a bell with a tongue that pulls out. In the hall 'the monastic motives ... [were] repeated ... with friars' heads appearing in unexpected places, as bell-pulls and handles to the carved gothic doors'. Surely this could only be Friar Park, a large house built in an extraordinary camp-Gothic style by a millionaire called Sir Frank Crisp. It stands on a hill at the back of Henley and in 1955 when Less Than Angels was published was owned by the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, a teaching order of Roman Catholic nuns. The nuns opened a school for children aged 5 to 11 which my younger sister and brother attended. My mother recollects Barbara accompanying her to some school occasion, perhaps a sports day. Barbara must have carefully noted Friar Park's Nightmare Abbey attributes for later use. The nuns subsequently closed the school and moved elsewhere in Henley and the house is now owned by the former Beatle George Harrison.

Although I don't remember any conversation that I had with Barbara in Henley I do have a painfully accurate recollection of one that we had in London. It must have been towards the end of the 1960s and I was working as an editor for a firm of law publishers, Sweet & Maxwell. Some years before Sweet & Maxwell had become part of a general publishing group called Associated Book Publishers which included the prestigious fiction imprint of Methuen. Our offices were in New Fetter Lane, near the International African Institute where Barbara worked. I had often walked past the Institute's door in Fetter Lane but had never seen Barbara, although I knew that she still saw my parents and I had also heard that she had been rejected by Jonathan Cape. I was surprised and pleased when she contacted me and suggested lunch. We went to Oodles (a vegetarian restaurant in Fetter Lane) and chatted a bit. Then, suddenly, over coffee, much to my surprise, she asked me if I thought Methuens would be interested in her book. The request came abruptly, out of the blue: I think she may have been as embarrassed as I was.

Anyhow, I didn't feel I could help. For one thing, although our editorial staff shared a building with Methuen editorial staff, relations between the two were positively glacial, not to say hostile: neither side had any contact with the other. And I knew that the axe was being taken very severely to all the publishing imprints apart from Sweet & Maxwell which continued to make a healthy profit. So the idea that I could put her in touch with a sympathetic Methuen editor was a non-starter: I had never spoken to any of them. And I was pretty sure that they would not be interested in a novel which had already been turned down by a number of other publishers.

I didn't go into any of this. I tried to let her down gently by explaining, perfectly truthfully, that the costs of producing a book were spiralling year-by-year and that as a result more and more copies of an individual title had to be sold to cover the production and other costs. As a consequence fewer titles were being published. If Barbara was annoyed by being told something she knew for herself by someone she probably still thought of as being a child she didn't show it. I suspect she may have sent the manuscript - I suppose it was An Unsuitable Attachment - to Methuens anyhow.

I never saw Barbara again after that although she continued to visit my parents in Henley. I was genuinely pleased to hear of her eventual triumph. My mother told me that Barbara had told her and my father that when, after being nominated by The Times Literary Supplement, a letter had come from Tom Maschler 'that was a very sweet moment'. I would have liked the opportunity of reminding her that I was one of a long line of editors who had turned her down and been proved wrong - an occupational hazard of all editors.
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Title Annotation:The English Novel in the Twentieth Century, part 2; Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
Author:May, Radmila
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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