5th - 21st October 2018

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Barbara Pym event at The Portico

authors in the portico library at MLF Barbara Pym eventJon Parker Lee

  • authors in the portico library at MLF Barbara Pym event

There’s an incredible dome above my head, with pale blue glass at its centre. There are floor to ceiling shelves of glorious nineteenth century books all around. I’m sitting in one of the smaller, miscellaneous sections of The Portico Library. People are arriving, climbing over one another excitedly. We’re here to honour Barbara Pym, and I find out why:

The event tonight marks Pym’s centenary and is introduced by Librarian and Barbara Pym Society member Libby Tempest. Libby describes the comedy, the profound sense of recognition when reading Barbara’s work, but also the bittersweet circumstances surrounding her success.

Barbara wrote six comedic novels published throughout the fifties, but then the literary scene began to change. Barbara continued to write, but spent fifteen years unable to find a publisher for her work. It wasn’t until the late seventies that Barbara was mentioned in the Times Literary Supplement by David Cecil and Philip Larkin; she was the only living writer on the list of the most underrated writers of the century. Barbara was rediscovered overnight, with offers to reprint old novels and publish her new work. Although she finally found success again, it was brief. She died from cancer in January 1980.

Paul Binding, novelist, reviewer, publisher and friend of the author, explains that behind the delightful comedy there is an understanding of the sadder, darker aspects of life; he also senses the spiritual dimension within her writing.

Donna Coonan is commissioning editor for Virago, Barbara Pym’s publisher in the UK. She explains at first not knowing the novels and then feeling unhopeful as she learned about the source material: how interesting could stories of church wardens, jumble sales, academics and librarians really be? (“Oh, the trials of indexing!”) Then she read the books herself, found them delightful and observational, astute and true and at times, quite sad. Donna says “you read, you think, you smile; you wish you had the facility to phrase it like that.”

Louis De Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, talks with great affection about Barbara’s books, explaining the panoramic qualities of the novels read linearly and as a whole. Characters turn up in each others' books to present a large picture from the assembly of smaller things. Again, the word recognition comes to mind, as Louis explains how many of the female characters could be the voice of his mother, arguing about whose turn it is to arrange the flowers on the altar. “These are stories of ordinary people caught up in trivialities,” he says.

What happens during the interval is just plain cute; we all have Pimms. Then we sit back down to enjoy the Yvonne Cocking dramatisation of a Pym short story called “A Sister’s Love”. Despite the fabulous projection of the players, it’s easy to miss bits because the audience is laughing continually.

To quote Donna Coonan, and the sentiment of everyone here, happy centenary Barbara Pym, you were a rare gem!

About the writer: L.J.Spillane waffles on here: www.ljspillane.com and here: @LJSpillane. Curb your despair, she’s learning the value of good editing.