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Summary

Picked as a Book to Look Forward to in 2021 by the Guardian, The Times and the Observer.

A Radio 4 Book of the Week, April 2021.

Barbara Pym became beloved as one of the wittiest novelists of the late 20th century, revealing the inner workings of domestic life so brilliantly that her friend Philip Larkin announced her the era’s own Jane Austen. But who was Barbara Pym and why was the life of this English writer – one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart – so defined by rejection, both in her writing and in love?

Pym lived through extraordinary times. She attended Oxford in the '30s when women were the minority. She spent time in Nazi Germany, falling for a man who was close to Hitler. She made a career on the Home Front as a single working girl in London’s bedsit land. Through all of this, she wrote. Diaries, notes, letters, stories and more than a dozen novels – which as Byrne shows more often than not reflected the themes of Pym’s own experience: worlds of spinster sisters and academics in unrequited love, of powerful intimacies that pulled together seemingly humble lives.

Paula Byrne’s new biography is the first to make full use of Barbara Pym’s archive. Brimming with new extracts from Pym’s diaries, letters and novels, this book is a joyous introduction to a woman who was herself the very best of company.

Byrne brings Barbara Pym back to centre stage as one of the great English novelists: a generous, shrewdly perceptive writer and a brave woman, who only in the last years of her life was suddenly, resoundingly recognised for her genius.

©2021 Paula Byrne (P)2021 HarperCollins Publishers Limited

Critic reviews

"Byrne’s comprehensive biography...is unlikely to be bettered.... This is an elegant, incisive and sympathetic biography that deepens our understanding of Pym...Byrne succeeds admirably" (Literary Review)

"[An] engrossing new biography of Pym that negates any theory that she lived a quiet, uneventful life.... It’s a tribute to Byrne’s clear-eyed and thorough but warm-hearted approach to Pym that we don’t hold that unsavoury episode against her. It was just typical of her bad romantic choices.... The chapters are enticingly short, and I romped through them. Each adds a vital piece of the jigsaw, explaining the provenance of her fictional characters and building up our understanding of [her] state of mind.... It’s a delight to meet her again in these pages." (Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Times)

"Light-hearted and lively biography...Byrne is an excellent literary detective, tracing acquaintances directly into the novels. The author seems to have been as fun, clever and kind as her best creations...certainly more ambitious and multifaceted than the teapots and cats suggest; Byrne knows this and conveys it with a light touch in this entertaining book." (Lucy Atkins, Sunday Times)

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Excellent Woman

A well researched and crafted biography. I found it interesting and engaging from start to end.

3 people found this helpful