My First Pym: An Academic Question

I’d never heard of English novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980) until I started reading Thomas’s blog, My Porch. He’s a big fan and co-host of the Barbara Pym Reading Week in honor of the writer’s 100th birthday.

Pym’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years and it looks like her novels are enjoying a bit of a resurgence, for good reason. I’ve only read one novel so far and its obvious that they can be read and enjoyed on the surface level or for their deeper and more tragic undertones.

I’ve already started recommending her to all of my friends who appreciate irony and sarcasm.

Pym on the shelf

The library where I work had nine Pym novels on the shelf. I wasn’t sure where to start so pulled the first one off the shelf–An Academic Question–and fell in love with the photo of Pym on the back cover. I looked at the other books and none of them had this photo or any photo of the author, so I decided it was a sign and checked out An Academic Question based on the author’s picture.

Copyright 1986 David Gamble

Doesn’t she look happy and like she’d be a lot of fun? This is one of my all time favorite author photos.

An Academic Question was published posthumously. The brief introduction by Hazel Holt in the edition I read explains that Pym started writing this story in 1970 and was trying to make it a bit more “sharp and swinging” to fit in with the literary climate of the day. Pym wrote her first draft in the first person and thought it felt too cozy. She wrote a second draft in the third person, but abandoned the story in 1972 for a new idea. Pym died in 1980 and An Academic Question was first published in 1986 after Holt amalgamated the two drafts.

Caro Grimstone is the protagonist of the story. She’s a “graduate wife,” a woman who has been to college herself and is now the wife of a lecturer at a provincial university.  Women’s lib is underway in the cities, it seems, but for now men are still the main actors and women fulfill supporting roles. Caro is bored with her life and decides to start reading to residents at the local retirement home, one of whom happens to be a retired missionary that may have a manuscript that could advance Caro’s husband’s career if he could only read it. Hubby is an up-and-coming scholar and his main competition, who was never allowed to see the manuscript, is on the verge of retirement. Getting his hands on the manuscript could make his career. One thing leads to another. During the manuscript business Caro is also wondering if her husband is having an affair and begins a sort of investigation into that.

The novel is a comedy of manners and an academic satire, with a smidgen of mystery/thriller. Underpinning it all are serious issues of self-fulfillment, career satisfaction, and relationships (romantic, friendship, work, familial), to name a few.

I was only planning on reading one of her novels for the Barbara Pym Reading Week, but just started my second, Jane and Prudence, which was first published in 1953. I don’t remember the last time I’ve read two novels by an author back-to-back.

Head over to Thomas’s blog and check out his posts on Pym. There’s also a very active Barbara Pym Society you might like to check out to learn more about this fascinating writer.

Have you read any Pym? What’s your favorite? 

One comment

  1. Great author photo, it looks like she's having the best time 🙂 I've never read Pym. At the rate I'm going I probably never will. Why isn't there enough time to get to ALL THE BOOKS?

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