Somewhere between tedium and rage

I love the novels of Barbara Pym immensely. Barbara Pym could make mundane things endlessly fascinating. The author of this bio could not. It was rather a bit of a snooze.

The ‘Miss Pym’ construction was used far too frequently and was cutesy in a way that diminishes the subject. From the title, to the text, to chapter titles, to photo captions. It was too much.

That Pym had Nazi sympathies is a fact that the author justly writes about. However, the way she writes about Pym’s Nazi boyfriend and her infatuation with Nazi Germany was also a little too cute and casual than is seemly in the 21st century.

“Pym was mesmerized by the handsome blackshirt…” Not sure that adjective is called for unless clearly qualified as being Pym’s perception, which is borne out by the block quote that follows it. Why did Byrne call him handsome?

“Barbara was…swept up in the excitement of the Third Reich…” Maybe swap out excitement for propaganda.

A chapter title: “In which Fraulein Pym falls for a Handsome Nazi” Perhaps the author doesn’t need to excoriate Pym on every page for being a Nazi sympathizer, but she also doesn’t have to make light of it either.

“It was a spectacular event, the Nazi Party had pulled out all the stops.” Did they really Paula? We must find out who their party planner is.

Another chapter title: “In which our Heroine goes to Germany for the third time and sleeps with her Nazi” Oh how cute! He’s her Nazi.

And then in describing the douchebaggery of Pym’s English love interests Byrne writes this: “…she was headed back to Germany, where she was sure of receiving better treatment at the hands of her blackshirt boyfriend.” Really?

When it comes to Pym’s penchant for falling in love with gay men, I don’t know how annoyed I should be with Pym or with Byrne for making it seem like Pym’s driving force was simply to move from one infatuation to another. I’d like to think that Pym had more going on in her life than just that. Maybe it was the author’s over reliance on personal journals that makes Pym seem like an emotional simpleton who couldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if her life depended on it.

Pym’s life was Pym’s life, if that’s who she was, so be it. But Byrne’s way of writing about ‘homosexuals’ got to be annoying in the extreme. Try this one: “She was especially interested in his homosexual relationship with Eric Oliver.” Guess what Miss Byrne, it’s just a relationship. Maybe you meant to say romantic or sexual or something else. Pym can use antiquated language, she’s dead, and she wrote those lines 60 years ago. But Byrne is only two years older than I am. Too young to be that oblivious. You’d think she was 107.

I will end this where I started it, Pym’s bio didn’t have to be this boring.

11 thoughts on “Somewhere between tedium and rage

  1. dfarabee May 20, 2021 / 9:30 pm

    I’m impressed you finished the book. Disappointing to not have any thoughtful consideration of Pym’s life and choices. I’ve only read two of Pym’s novels but i really like those and will savor the others of hers. Anyway, thank you for reading the bio and writing the post… so I can skip it.


  2. lauratfrey May 21, 2021 / 12:30 am

    I think I remember you tweeting about this and yeah, those quotes. Yikes!


  3. Aileen May 21, 2021 / 7:29 am

    Oh ugh, I ordered this because I was so excited about a new Barbara Pym biography. (It hasn’t arrived yet.) I was bracing myself for the Pym/nazi connection but it sounds like Paula Byrne is writing this like a tabloid expose.


  4. Karen K. May 21, 2021 / 12:20 pm

    Well that’s disappointing, I was really looking forward to this one. Harrumph.


  5. Desperate Reader May 21, 2021 / 2:35 pm

    Did Pym retain her Nazi sympathies during and after the war? Plenty of people had far right sympathies in the 1930’s, plenty of people grew out of it when faced with the reality of what happened, and even then generations deep prejudices don’t disappear overnight.. Plenty of people make poor relationship decisions based on sexual attraction as well – and don’t necessarily grow out of it. I really don’t want to read this book.


  6. Liz Dexter May 22, 2021 / 7:05 am

    Oh dear, that “homosexual relationship” thing is very annoying (I just got extremely annoyed with that in a book I was reviewing myself, for another place than my blog; it was “at least” written by someone fairly elderly and bufferish. Most people I know loved this but it does sound a bit twee and a bit light on the whole Nazi thing. I will still read it but I will bear this in mind, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ruthiella May 23, 2021 / 5:54 pm

    Yikes! I was really looking forward to reading this as a Pym fan. That fandom is in large part thanks to you and your blog too, BTW. I will probably skip it now. I still have A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt to read first anyway.


  8. joyfulee May 30, 2021 / 1:23 pm

    I made it thru Chapter 12 and don’t think I’ll go farther. The dissection of her sex life in college is stomach-churning. And I’d been so excited to read the book – huzzah to you for making it through the book!


  9. bjoerncologne June 6, 2021 / 1:43 pm

    Of course the author has to stress the homosexual aspect of the relationship(s) as this is an integral part of Pym’s biography and her way of dealing with gays. So I don’t see any problem with this facet and the emphasis on it.

    The Nazi parts are actually a bit weird, especially from a German perspective. But the author writes from Pym’s point of view and therefore it might make sense. P. Byrne discusses this issue very convincingly in her Afterword.

    And this ‘Miss Pym’ nonsense: yes it’s a bit too much but as she uses this mainly in the chapter headings I think it’s ok.

    All in all a very nice and critical biography with a bulk of new information which I liked a lot. You all should read it if you’re a fan of Barbara Pym.


    • Thomas June 26, 2021 / 8:40 am

      But that’s just it, I am a fan of Barbara Pym and I hated this biography. I don’t think the author should have been writing from Pym’s point of view, especially as it relates to the Nazi connections. Byrne’s choice of language in that regard was way too casual and glib, and in my opinion inexcusable. Her handling of homosexuality was less problematic for me but Byrne’s choice of language was what annoyed me, not the fact that she detailed the part of Pym’s life.


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