Waugh Biographer Takes Up Another Author

Paula Byrne who wrote the “partial biography”, as she described it, entitled Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (2009) has now written a full-on biography of another satirical English novelist. This is entitled The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym and will be released in the UK next week by William Collins.

The book has already been reviewed quite favorably in several papers. Writing in last Saturday’s edition of The Times, Ysenda Maxtone Graham noted:

Pym the novelist is particularly good on the unmarried older woman at Christmas, in her bedsit, heating up a meal to share in front of the television with the other lonely resident from across the stairwell. From that moment of yuletide desolation her bleak poetry sprang.

Prepare yourself for a long read. Byrne presents Pym’s life story in the picaresque style of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: 124 chapters with titles such as “In which our Heroine sees Friedbert for the Last Time” and “In which Miss Pym leaves Pimlico for Barnes”. Byrne justifies this comic-epic format by suggesting that Pym “spent a lot of time in love” and “on the road”. […]

The chapters are enticingly short, and I romped through them. Each adds a vital piece of the jigsaw, explaining the provenance of her fictional characters and building up our understanding of the state of mind of the person who wrote the late masterpieces Quartet in Autumn (1977) and The Sweet Dove Died (1978).

The Guardian’s reviewer Kathryn Hughes earlier this week wrote to much the same effect:

Although Pym’s archive has already been well picked over by scholars and fans, Byrne’s book is the first to integrate its revelations into a cradle-to-grave biography. She gives a seamless timeline of Pym’s life as a provincial solicitor’s daughter, Oxford undergraduate, wartime Wren and diligent employee of the International African Society. Byrne doesn’t dodge the uncomfortable implication that Pym’s phase as a Nazi sympathiser (she even had a swastika pin that she wore around Oxford) went on longer than most middle-class Britons in the 1930s, but she is clear too how completely it was bound up with Pym’s feelings for prewar Germany as a land of music, mountains and philosophy and, above all, as a crucial bulwark against the terrifying threat of communism from Russia. It perhaps says something about Pym’s blind spot on the subject that she had to be badgered by her friend and first reader Jock Liddell into excising Nazis from the typescript of Some Tame Gazelle.

An excerpt from Byrne’s book appears in today’s Daily Telegraph: “Barbara Pym’s secret sexual awakening.” BBC Radio 4 will also be broadcasting excerpts from the book starting on Tuesday, 13 April at 0030. There will be additional 15 minute episodes daily through Saturday. [NOTE: This is change of time from original schedule due to pre-emption by programming relating to the death of Prince Philip. Check BBC Radio 4 website for scheduling of later episodes.] The episodes will be posted on the internet after each broadcast and will available worldwide  on BBC iPlayer.

Sion College in London has announced an online seminar in which Byrne will discuss the book. This will take place on 10 May. Details on booking are available here. Registration fee will include a copy of the book which will be shipped before the seminar convenes. Amazon.com has not yet posted a schedule for the book’s availability in the USA, but North American readers can easily purchase a print edition from Amazon.co.uk and pay in dollars using a credit card or other digital payment.

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