Book Review: A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym


A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym
Hazel Holt

I read my first Barbara Pym novel back in April 2002. It was Crampton Hodnet and I must admit I remember nothing about it. I remember that I enjoyed it in a mild kind of way. Later that year I followed it up with A Glass of Blessing and then again in 2004 with Jane and Prudence. In each case I remember enjoying them but not being able to remember a blessed thing about any of them. It wasn’t until this past August when I picked up Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, that I really understood the brilliance of Barbara Pym. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Some Tame Gazelle, but I actually remember what happened and think of various scenes from that book with some frequency and with more than a little amusement. So when I came across this copy of A Lot to Ask I couldn’t pass it up.

Hazel Holt, Pym’s friend, colleague, and literary executor has pulled together a short life of Barbara Pym using extensive excerpts from Pym’s diaries, correspondence, and published works. The result is a somewhat choppy, episodic narrative that nonetheless delights because it is rich with the same kind of detail that one finds in Pym’s novels. As I am with most biography, I was bored with the details of her childhood, but once Pym heads off to Oxford my interest started to quicken. And by the time she gets to writing novels I was completely enthralled. What becomes clear is how much of Pym’s fictional output is pulled from real life. Not necessarily autobiographical, but it does seem like Pym’s novel are repositories for a vast catalog of observations, experiences, and collected stories (gossip) that she picked up and recorded in her diaries over the years.

Not surprisingly I was particularly taken with passages that detail Pym’s interest in various authors and books. Her shared love of Ivy Compton-Burnett with her friend Jock led them to correspond with one another in the style of ICB. In practical terms this meant clever, funny letters with lots of dialog that read more like scenes from novels than correspondence. She also writes more than once of her love of Anthony Powell’s, six volume magnum opus, A Dance to the Music of Time. (I have the complete set and Pym’s encouragement from beyond the grave is moving them ever higher in my TBR pile.) And I am dying to find out more about Denton Welch, an author with whom Pym was “besotted”.

Perhaps the most difficult time in Pym’s life was the period in the 1960s and 70s in which her work was unpublishable. Having had six novels published between 1950 and 1961 Pym was devastated when her publisher, Jonthan Cape, declined to publish An Unsuitable Attachment. Even in her despair Pym recognized that the literary landscape had changed with the popularity of such work like William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as well as the works of James Baldwin and others. Indeed it is hard to reconcile the dissonance of the era with the quiet challenges of a typical Pym story line. Recording everyday life observations in her notebook she bemoans the unfashionable quality of what she loves to write:

Mr Claydon in the Library – he is having his lunch, eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, a glass of milk near at hand. Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?…What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticized The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

It wasn’t until 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement included a feature on underrated authors in which both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil pronounced Barbara Pym as their favorite, that Pym’s career got back on track. Not only was her reputation (and publishing) revived but she achieved sales and accolades like never before. It was, however, a bittersweet revival given that Pym died of cancer only three years later in 1980 at the age of 66.

For anyone who likes Pym this is a must read. It has certainly put me in a Pym mood. I have already started on Excellent Women and am finding the experience all the more rewarding for having read A Lot to Ask.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym

  1. Book Psmith February 23, 2010 / 8:58 pm

    I have this on my bookshelf and found that the first time I attempted to read it, I couldn't get into it. I think I made the mistake of trying to read a bio before I read any of her work. Now that I have, and after reading your review, I will have to give this one a second chance.


  2. Amanda February 23, 2010 / 9:08 pm

    this looks wonderful! I began reading Pym last year and I've really enjoyed the two novels I've read. She is an author I want to “space out” so that I don't run out of Pym books too soon. Throwing a bio. in there will help!


  3. Thomas at My Porch February 24, 2010 / 1:05 am

    Book Psmith: It kind of helps to skim through the early years. It gets more interesting as it gets more bookish.

    Amanda: I think this one is a good one to better prepare you for reading other Pym novels.


  4. verity February 24, 2010 / 5:39 am

    I read this a while ago but must revisit it now that I've read my way through Pym. Have you come across A very private eye which is her autobiography?


  5. savidgereads February 24, 2010 / 10:02 am

    I tried a Pym and put it down really quickly and now have absolutley no idea why!

    I must give her another read and hopefully fall in love with her and want to read this too!


  6. StuckInABook February 24, 2010 / 1:41 pm

    Excellent Women remains the only Pym I've read, though I own quite a few. Somehow I'm never quite in the mood – I'd always rather get something from the 1930s. But, one day… and I'd love to read her write letters in the style of ICB!


  7. Buried In Print February 24, 2010 / 1:45 pm

    MMmmm, I loved this book. You likely already know about the Barbara Pym Society, but I think they've added some things since I last visited. Including mugs! ::grin::


  8. novelinsights February 24, 2010 / 4:28 pm

    You know what, I've never come across Barbara Pym. I'll have to look out for her in the library…


  9. Thomas at My Porch February 25, 2010 / 12:43 am

    Verity: I haven't seen the autobiography, but I will certainly keep my eye out for it.

    Simon S and Simon T: I am a little surprised that you boys aren't into Miss Pym. Try Some Tame Gazelle if you haven't already. Although it was published in 1950, she wrote it before WWII. The scene with the worm and the cauliflower is a perfect comedy of manners.

    Buried: I didn't know about the society. And there is merchandise? I better hide the credit card before I take a look.

    Novel Insights: Start with Some Tame Gazelle.


  10. Tara February 25, 2010 / 4:08 pm

    I have felt much like you about Pym. I'm pleased to see that I own Some Tame Gazelle, so whenever I get around to revisiting her I'll read that. It's good to know you got so much out of that one.


  11. Thomas at My Porch February 28, 2010 / 7:57 pm

    Tara: And my current read of Excellent Women is proving to be very enjoyable. But STG still beats it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.