Excellent Women: The Barbara Pym Society North American Conference
Sitting on the train out of Boston, after a most enjoyable weekend at a Barbara Pym Society 16th Annual North American Conference dedicated to Excellent Women (1952), I reflect about literary societies and their role in promoting the love of literature.
The aim of a scholar, or a group of scholars, in researching an author is to study the text objectively and impartially. In contrast, a literay society of that same author, would be the product of love and admiration. This type of devotion is often regarded in the academic world as a silly idol worshipping.
My own advisor suspected me of being such a devotee, when I told her that I wanted to write my PhD dissertation about the great author—Barbara Pym. In order to check my impartiality she first asked me to write an academic paper about Pym. This was an interesting challege, luckily I passed the test.
In 2004 as a graduate student I was chosen to represent my institution: The Hebrew University, in the Dickens Project at the Univesity of California Santa Cruz. Like a literary society it was devoted to one writer, but it was held at the university campus. The lecturers were graduate students and faculty members from different universities in the US and around the world, and the participants were Dickens lovers from the community. Many of them knew more about the writer than either the graduate students or the faculty. Unlike the academics, they were partial to Dickens and openly loved him. My task was to lead a group of participants, and at first I kept wondering: what am I doing here? they surely know Dickens more than me, what have I got to contribute? When I shared these worries with the group, the members kindly assured me that that there was always something new to learn about Dickens.
This curiosity about a beloved writer, the conviction that there is always something new to learn is typical of members of a literary society. And this is what I love most about the Barbara Pym Society and their conferences. Instead of efficiently dividing the 100 people present into small groups and giving as many papers as possible, as so often is the case in academic conferences, we only had 4 papers a day and each lasted an hour. For me it was such a luxury to deliver my paper calmly without encountering the worried face of the moderator handing me a note with the number 5 on in indicating that my time was almost up.
In the Barbara Pym conference, the organizer Dr. Kathy Ackley a "bona fide" Pym scholar, had asked each of the speakers a non scholarly question about their attitude to Pym's work. She later used the answers as part of her delightful introductions to their talks. I found the presentations at the conference inspiring, and thought provoking. Moreover, since all the speakers loved Pym and were not ashamed to show it, the delivery was lively and engaging.
Talking about my topic "friendship among women in Excellent Women," on Saturday, I felt that it was a privilege to share my paper with a group of like-minded people who were always eager to find out something new about a beloved author. As I talked it was clear that the audience (which consisted mostly of excellent women and only a few excellent men) was familiar with every quote from the book and cared deeply about the issue at hand.
I don’t believe that I should be impartial about books; to paraphrase Dryden they are meant to instruct and delight us. So for me there is no going back to scholarly academic conferences, I don’t want to be objective and detached about literature—it is just too boring.