I have been debating whether her 100th birthday is an appropriate opportunity to discuss some unpleasant facts in Barbara Pym’s biography. But since Barbara Pym herself loved to expose different types of unpleasantness I decided that I might as well do it now.
I shall start with a personal story.
In 2004 when I wrote my PhD dissertation on Barbara Pym’s 1950s novels I stayed in Oxford Britain for 3 weeks to work on her manuscripts. For days I sat at “Modern Papers” a special material room at the Bodleian Library. One day I came across an early version of, what later became, her first novel Some Tame Gazelle. It tells the story of two sisters Barbara and Hilary and they are portrayed as two middle-aged spinsters. In the scene below they are knitting for the poor Nazis who, having lost the war, are in exile in Africa:
Miscellaneous papers, 1973, n.d. Shelfmark: MS. Pym 99 Extent: i + 173 leaves
“‘Oh dear’, sighed Barbara, putting down the vest she was knitting for the Nazi exiles in Africa”. . . Of course it had been rather extravagant of her to use such an expensive wool to knit a Charity garment , but she excused herself by remarking that after all the Nazis were rather “special people” Friedbert had been a Nazi. “Dear Friedbert”, she murmured, rolling her eyes.She was wondering whether to wear her little swastika brooch or not. Dear Friedbert had been so pleased at this sign of her presumable sympathy with the National Socialist Party. ‘Die Deutche ugend liebt ihr Vaterland’. . . how did the rest of it go, something about following the Fuhrer, anyway she had it written on the speech of Hitler’s that Friedbert had sent her once, such a long time ago. Liebfraumilch always reminded Barbara of the Rhineland which she had visited in the spring when she was twenty. The Nazis were young and arrogant then and she had hardly known which she liked best Hans of Friedbert. “The sad state of the poor Nazis in Africa is a subject very dear to my heart’ ‘Yes’ said Mr. Harvey ‘ we must do all we can for them. Of course I suppose everyone realized that the Nazi regime could not last for- ever. Hitler was a powerful personality, but after he went there was really no one to lead them’. Barbara had always thought that Friedbert would make a good Fuhrer, and much handsomer than Hitler.
Nothing had prepared me for the shock and the nausea which I felt upon reading this passage. In the mid-1930s Pym, among others in her Oxford social milieu, was apparently infatuated with the outward symbols of Nazism. At this period in her life she can almost be considered a Nazi sympathizer. This part of Pym’s biography has not been fully explored or satisfactorily accounted for. According to her biographer Anne Wyatt Brown, she never fully explained that episode in her personal history. Yet Brown mentions that Pym was an impressionable 20 year old and apparently in love with a German student at the time (1992: 33).
Although I read in her biography that Pym has been to Germany 5 times from 1934 to 1938, it did not register. But this flippant (almost silly) passage of fiction with its seemingly innocuous information was too sinister for me. At one point during that summer I even considered dropping the project altogether. I tried to calm down by reminding myself that Pym was very young at the time, I read books which could help me understand the zeitgeist in 1938. But one book of newspapers clippings from 1938 convinced me that one had to be quite blind not to see what was growing in Germany at the time. Still many chose not to see, even Jews like my grandparents refused to believe and stayed in Berlin.
So I decided not to judge the young Barbara Pym too harshly and completed the dissertation.
In the six post-war novels, Germany and the Holocaust are not mentioned even once. Pym may have been uneasy about her past attitudes, but instead of dealing with the existence of evil she has created an alternative church-centered world, where civility rules and where evil is replaced with human faults which are humorously criticized and ultimately forgiven. No doubt, this is a much more pleasant world.