109: The Self-Empowered Woman: Barbara Pym

Dear Followers,

I’ve been asked so often about where I get ideas for The Self-Empowered Woman Blog. Often I read about high-achieving women in newspapers or magazines, and sometimes I’ll learn about someone amazing on TV. Today’s subject, however, came to me courtesy of my brother-in-law, David Yuratich, who was visiting from California. We were discussing “worthy” books and authors, and he told me about the amazing British writer, Barbara Pym (1913-1980).
Pym’s mother, Irena, was the assistant organist at the Parish Church at Saint Oswald in Oswestry, Shropshire, England. Church life, vicars and curates became a part of Barbara’s daily life. These Anglican characters surface in many of her books (3. Belief in the Unbelievable).
Pym started her first novel when she was only 16 years old (2. An Early Sense of Direction), and after her graduation from Oxford in 1934, she returned to her hometown determined to become a published author.
During World War II, Pym worked for the censorship office in Bristol and had her heart broken during a painful romance (15. Forget about Prince Charming). During the war years she joined the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), and spent of that time in Naples. After the war she worked for the journal “Africa,” and in 1949 her first book was accepted for publication.
For the next 12 years her books were published on a regular basis and readers embraced her stories of “unassuming people leading unremarkable lives.” But in 1963, her publisher rejected her work because it was “out of step with the times.” Devastated by this unexpected disappointment, she revised the book (“An Unsuitable Attachment”) but 20 different publishers refused to publish it.
This grim period of her life was called “the wilderness” and she considered herself trapped in a literary limbo. In 1970, she wrote “I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again.” She began a romance with an antique dealer who was 17 years her junior, and the book she wrote about that sort of love affair was also rejected by a variety of publishers (12. Hard Times).
Just as her professional life had begun to sour, her health also began to suffer in the 1970s. She endured breast cancer, a mastectomy, and a stroke. And in 1976, again, her latest novel was soundly rejected. In spite of over a decade of literary dead ends, Pym refused to accept defeat and kept writing (7. Magnificent Obsession).
Everything changed in 1977 when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil wrote in “The Times Literary Supplement” that Barbara Pym was “the most underrated novelist of the century.” After 16 years of struggle, she was catapulted to fame and acclaim. Macmillan even reprinted all of her books, and in America E.P. Dutton began publishing all or her novels, as well (8. Turning No into Yes).
She was only able to enjoy her heightened popularity for two years before her cancer returned. She died in Oxford at the age of 66, but Pym’s legacy is kept alive by “The Barbara Pym Society,” which was founded in 1994.
Looking forward to your comments. . .
About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.