Barbara Pym: The Other Jane Austen

Barbara Pym is the thinking girl's romance writer, the only one I'm aware of, outside of Jane Austen, who hits that sweet spot of an utterly unsentimental romance, one which can be read 1,000 times and never become annoying.

I have spent quality time wondering why there aren't more books like this. Austen's Darcy turns 200 this year (in case it's been possible to miss that marketing juggernaut) and there's been a spate of speculation on his endurance, his various incarnations, and why Jane Austen is inimitable. (Plus some revolting comparisons to other books that are supposedly like Jane Austen. Which, the writer who said Twilight has had her brain replaced by a slurpee.)

Reading Barbara Pym, I finally understand how it's done, and why it's so hard. The romance, the most bourgeoisie of forms, has to be pitiless in questioning the assumptions of the society it's set in. Austen never takes her eye off the satirical ball of the pride, vanity, prejudice and so on of her characters. Darcy, she thought, was a little overdone, and that was before she knew that he looked like Colin Firth. But Austen a little overdone is still an Austen who doesn't let anyone get away with anything.

You can't let anyone get away with anything if you're going to write good romance. Is this because love is an area when we're most often most id-driven and un-self-aware? Because love is so often about ego, money, self preservation, delusion, ambition and fear?

Barbara Pym would be gentler than that. She's accurate, and hilarious, but also kind. Her oeuvre -- I'm reading my way thought it -- is set in England from the '30s to the '60s, all concerning ordinary people, scholars, spinsters, deacons and curates, professors, students and comfortable married women. The most glamorous a paramour gets, in Pym, is, possibly, a cranky archdeacon too self-absorbed to love or a pompously handsome university lecturer. The action is all nearly non-action, a visit to church, to a tea shop, to a jumble sale, and manages to be page-turning nonetheless. The characters sometimes get together at the end, or sometimes Pym considers her work done with just a hint that they might.

(I have a major thing for arcs that extend out past the end of books -- see my Infinite Jest post.)

The Pym books to start with, everyone says, are Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence. I, having done it in that order, would recommend instead starting with her first published work, Some Tame Gazelle, which was to me the most laugh-out-loud funny (maybe Pym's overdone moment, á la Darcy). And then continuing with the books in the order of publication. For readers like me, who wish that Jane Austen wrote about 13 more books, this is a treasure trove indeed.