On Remaining Unpublished, or The Most Underrated Novelist of the 20th Century

What could you do if you suddenly fall out of favor, or somehow become irrelevant? A poignant example is the rejection experienced by the British novelist Barbara Pym (1913—1980) after publishing six novels from 1949—1960.

Barbara Pym did not write bestsellers, but she enjoyed a steady success (we have to take into account that in the 1950s most people borrowed books from the library: Excellent Women sold 6577 copies, Jane and Prudence 5052, Less Than Angels 3569 and A Glass of Blessing 3071), and got favorable reviews.

As a published author of six books, she must have felt that she had made it; that she could trust her readers to keep on buying, and reading, her new books. Pym had every reason to believe that her writing career was secure.

Then came a shock: in 1963 when her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by Jonathan Cape, and she could not find another publisher for the work. For 15 years, all her new writings remained unpublished.

Pym was totally unprepared for rejection: as her own reality remained unchanged: she lived in the same place with her sister, went to church every Sunday and kept the same job, she could not have guessed that the world outside has changed. Somehow in 1960s Britain her writing was considered dated and and no longer relevant.

I cannot begin to imagine what she felt throughout that time, the insult, the dismay and distress. She must have started to doubt her whole perception of reality, how could she have been so wrong? What about her loyal readers? Had they stopped being interested in what she had to say? Moreover, writing was her whole life; she had never married or had children.

But like in fairy tales, Pym’ s talent, consistency and hard work were rewarded. In 1977 for its 75th anniversary, the Times Literary Supplement issued a list of the most underrated writers of the century, drawn up by forty-three eminent literary figures. Pym was the only living writer to be named by two people – the poet Philip Larkin, and the historian and biographer Lord David Cecil.

This nomination brought about a renewed interest in Barbara Pym and her work; her old novels were reissued and new ones were published. In 1977 Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Sadly, like in Greek tragedies, in which the greater good always takes precedent over the fate of the individual: Pym was rediscovered too late, she did not have long to enjoy her success and died of cancer in 1980.

Pym was 50 year old when she first encountered this kind of rejection. I know from experience that around this age women start to feel irrelevant, even invisible. I wonder if Pym’s rejection has contributed to the heaviness of her later novels.

At any rate Pym kept on writing novels in her own style about people like her, anyway she was irrelevant, so she did not try to please anyone but herself.

I love Barbara Pym’s work: I wrote my PhD dissertation on her work and published a book about her novels (Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949–1963)

But I especially admire Pym for her resilience and her sense of purpose. Thus whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I remember Barbara Pym and go back to work.


P.S. A quote from a blog written recently in the Times Literary Supplement blog by Toby Lichtig about the 1977 special issue

“The biggest winner from this special issue was Barbara Pym, chosen by both Cecil, who described her books as “the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years”, and Larkin: “the six novels Pym published between 1950 and 1961 … give an unrivalled picture of a small section of middle-class post-war England”. The story has now become a part of TLS, and wider literary, lore. Pym, who had been out of print for several years, really was brought in from the cold on the back of this support, and she went on to publish several more novels. She continues to be widely read, and enjoyed, today.”


About the Author
I have a PhD in English literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I usually write about issues concerning women, literature, culture and society. I lived in the US for 15 years (between 1979-1994). I am widow and in March 2016 started a support/growth Facebook group for widows: "Widows Move On." In October 2017 I started a Facebook group for Older and Experienced Feminists. I am also an active member of Women Wage Peace and believe that women can succeed where men have failed.
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