Barwon Booksellers - Secondhand and Collectibles


  • Neglected Authors - Barbara Pym & Anthony Powell

    16 October 2017 -

    It was James Joyce,with a twinkle in his eye, who said that a book was like a coffin of words, until a reader opened it and brought it to life. But sometimes an author can seem somehow resigned to the grave, criminally unread, the coffin of their words nailed shut by literary fashions, the ever-restlessness of new media, or even by the surfeit of contemporary rivals demanding our interest.

    Take the Shropshire born author Barbara Pym as an example, whose wry, discreet, expertly crafted novels of middle class life in the 1950s and 60s are pure examples of a gifted comic sensibility. After publishing her first novel, ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, in 1950, Pym mined a rich vein of understated, perceptive comedy in a number of books during the following decade. But then, with the burgeoning influence of TV in English life, her readers began to dwindle. She had worked as an editor of the anthropological journal ‘Africa’ at the International Africa Institute in London whilst writing her fictions at night, and was no doubt in quite a groove, when her publisher and friend Jonathan Cape sadly informed her in the early 1960s that he could publish her no more. Nothing to do with the quality of her work she was assured, but rather the changing tastes of the televisual age.

    Undoubtedly this came as a blow to Miss Pym, and she and her novels slipped quietly away into the background, seemingly forever. Until, in the mid 1970s, at the height of his fame, the poet Phillip Larkin, in an article in The Times Literary Supplement, defined Pym as the most underrated writer of the century.  Larkin also said of her novels that ‘they are miniatures, perhaps, but will not diminish!’

    As a consequence, interest was renewed in her work and she published ‘Quartet In Autumn’, which was very well received and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977. The world of readers had been restored to Barbara Pym.

    'The Sweet Dove Died' followed in 1978 but unfortunately not long after this Pym contracted breast cancer and died, in 1980, at the age of 66.

    So what now of her profile, her readership, her relevance etc, ? She is undoubtedly an acutely mannerist novelist and as such her insights, the austerity of her humour, and her unpretentious authenticity make her readable and stimulating still. The world she depicts, though antiquated on the surface, is thoroughly alive with the foibles of us all. But despite the existence of a Barbara Pym Society and the blue plaque outside her last home in Finstock , it would be safe to say that the works of Barbara Pym are well and truly, particularly here in Australia, resembling Joyce’s coffins again.

    And so, having derived great warmth and nourishment from the intelligence of her art, we thought we’d give you all a gentle reminder of the understated magnificence of Miss Pym, and also that we have many of her titles for sale on our fiction shelves.

    Anthony Powell is another British writer whose heyday now seems quite arcane. In his pomp, Powell's elegant  'A Dance To The Music Of Time' attracted multitudes of readers and of course a Channel 4 TV adaptation as well. 'A Dance ToThe Music Of Time' is a 12 volume epic which has often had Powell labelled as the 'English Proust'. The Guardian described 'A Dance...' as 'a world rich as Joyce's on the one hand and P.G.Wodehouse on the other'. Indeed, in its modernist inventions and its aristocratic milieu 'A Dance To The Music Of Time' does seem to have that rather oxymoronic mixture of style and content. 

    We currently have a complete set of 'A Dance To The Music Of Time' in stock.