In 1933, Barbara Pym, then an Oxford undergraduate, went on a date with a man who would be her friend, if not her lover, all her life. On the day in question she was not, she noted, looking “awfully beautiful”. But perhaps she took heart from her yellow suede coat, fishnet stockings and pink suspender belt. Certainly, the evening had its excitements. The couple – his name was Henry Harvey, and he had cheekbones like geometry – drove to a pub where they ate a mixed grill, drank beer and played ping pong. After supper, Pym, having unwisely confessed her feelings for Harvey, leaned over and bit him hard on the cheek.
In the days after I finished reading Paula Byrne’s wonderfully attentive and touching biography of Pym, I thought about this bite often: its unexpectedness; its daring; the way that, with a single act, she wrestled some kind of power for herself. Didn’t Sylvia Plath bite Ted Hughes on the cheek on the night they first met? And yet, who ever talks of Plath and Pym in the same breath? (I once spoke of Pym and Stevie Smith, of whose novels she was a fan, together at a conference, and even that pairing – they were both famous spinsters – had the young academics in the front row rolling their superior eyes.)
A woman’s life: what an odd and lovely thing it is, but how hard to change perceptions of the way it may be seen by others. Byrne’s book is good on the work, and it moves through the necessary facts as smoothly as a spoon through homemade jam. Its greatest achievement, however, lies in something at once more vital and more nebulous: her deep kinship with her subject’s excitable, unbridled heart. Those who think of Pym as the human equivalent of a winceyette nightie should smarten up their ideas. The pink suspender belt isn’t the half of it.
One reviewer said of her 1952 novel, Excellent Women, that every man who read it would ask himself: ‘Am I very dull?’
Clever and funny, Pym was a pioneer. At Oxford, she wrote and studied and sat in the library like a good girl. But she also had a fair amount of sex, most of which she liked, and little of which she felt guilty about. There were, in fact, so many men in her life, then and later, one can only conclude that her unmarried state was chosen, even if unconsciously. She fell for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, love her back, the misery involved in unrequitedness feeding into her novels, in which women ache for married men, or gay men, or too-young men, but somehow never quite collapse into desperation.
On a trip to Germany in 1934, she met a young SS officer, Friedbert Gluck, and fancied herself smitten. (Byrne doesn’t gloss Pym’s infatuation with Nazi Germany, but she knows, too, that in context, her sympathies were hardly exceptional.) Only then the war came, and Pym woke up. Having trained as a Wren, she was posted in Naples. More affairs followed, including one with a supply officer called Starky, who took her – this is not a euphemism – up Mount Vesuvius.
After the war, she worked in London at the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, editing its journal – and there she stayed until her retirement in 1973, when she moved to an Oxfordshire cottage with her sister, Hilary. By this point, she’d long since been dropped by Jonathan Cape; after six novels, she was regarded as twee, old-fashioned. Her saviour, of course, was a bespectacled librarian with whom she corresponded for 15 years before she ever met him: Philip Larkin. His and David Cecil’s mention of her in the TLS as woefully ignored enabled her great last books to find a home. Pym would eventually forgive Tom Maschler, Cape’s publisher, for his mistreatment of her. But not without first naming a pudding she’d invented after him (it was a milk jelly).
Pym is a funny kind of writer at this point: overrated, perhaps, by those who love the novels, and underrated by those who don’t. I like them well enough; thanks to Byrne, I’ll go back to them soon. But I find, now, that I approve even more wholeheartedly of her life, which seems, in spite of everything, to have been so replete emotionally. Her heart and mind are strange and fascinating: I’m still agog at her stalking (there’s no other word) of her gay London neighbours, whom she nicknamed Bear and Squirrel. How creepy should we find this? Won’t someone write a story about it?
Mostly, though, I’m stirred by her character. Her feminism takes two, sly forms. First, there’s the pluck and spiritedness that made people like, and love, her. It was a burden, always to be “splendid”, she told her friend Honor Wyatt, with whose ex-husband she had an affair. But it was surely better than the alternative, which was to sink into self-pity. Second, there is her extreme acuity when it comes to the opposite sex. One reviewer said of her 1952 novel, Excellent Women, that every man who read it would ask himself: “Am I very dull? Am I very inconsiderate? Do I imagine women are in love with me when they obviously aren’t?” What a gift: to chasten, even as you make them laugh. No wonder Byrne’s book is such a joy. It refreshes the parts other biographies simply cannot reach.
• The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne is published by William Collins (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply