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Episode 41: Barbara Pym and Other Excellent Women

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Barbara Pym and Other Excellent Women

A latter-day Austen, an academic, a romantic, a comic, a caustic chronicler of the commonplace . . .

The novelist Barbara Pym became beloved and Booker Prize-nominated in the late twentieth century, yet many rejections, years in the literary wilderness and manuscripts stored in linen cupboards preceded her revival.

Paula Byrne, author of The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, and Lucy Scholes, critic, Paris Review columnist and editor at McNally Editions, join the Slightly Foxed team to plumb the depths and scale the peaks of Barbara Pym’s writing, life and loves. From Nazi Germany to the African Institute; from London’s bedsit land to parish halls; from unrequited love affairs with unsuitable men to an epistolary friendship with Philip Larkin; and from rejection by Jonathan Cape to overnight success via the TLS, we trace Pym’s life through her novels, visiting the Bodleian and Boots lending libraries along the way. There’s joy in Some Tame Gazelle, loneliness in Quartet in Autumn, and humour and all human experience in between, with excellent women consistently her theme.

We then turn from Pym to other writers under or above the radar, finding darkness in Elizabeth Taylor, tragicomedy in Margaret Kennedy and real and surreal rackety lives in Barbara Comyns. To round out a cast of excellent women, we discover Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was foretold in Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera, and we recommend an eccentric trip with Jane Bowles and her Two Serious Ladies, as well as theatrical tales from a raconteur in Eileen Atkins’s memoir.


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Show Notes

Books Mentioned

Please find links to books, articles, and further reading listed below. The digits in brackets following each listing refer to the minute and second they are mentioned. (Episode duration: 57 minutes; 16 seconds)

We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles mentioned on the podcast and listed below. Please get in touch with Jess in the Slightly Foxed office for more information.

– Flora Thompson, Lark Rise and Over to Candleford & Candleford Green, Slightly Foxed Edition Nos. 58 and 59 (1:39)

– Paula Byrne, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym (2:11)

– Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow is out of print (4:28)

– Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn (6:33)

– Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died is out of print (8:16)

– Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle (14:07)

– Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (19:06)

– Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (22:14)

– Barbara Pym, A Few Green Leaves is out of print (32:28)

– Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor (36:33)

– Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (37:00)

– Elizabeth Taylor, Angel (38:27)

– Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter (41:16)

– Barbara Comyns, The House of Dolls (42:16)

– Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (42:45)

– Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (43:03)

– Barbara Comyns, A Touch of Mistletoe (43:46)

– Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (47:47)

– Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys, McNally Editions (48:59)

– Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (50:37)

– Eileen Atkins, Will She Do? (52:39)

Related Slightly Foxed Articles

Not So Bad, Really, Frances Donnelly on Barbara Pym, Issue 11

Hands across the Tea-shop Table, Sue Gee on Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek and Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Issue 58

There for the Duration, Juliet Gardiner on Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs Lippincote’s, Issue 13

Sophia Fairclough and Me, Sophie Breese on the novels of Barbara Comyns, Issue 42

  • Not So Bad, Really
    1 September 2006

    Not So Bad, Really

    When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement. For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.
  • Hands across the Tea-shop Table
    1 June 2018

    Hands across the Tea-shop Table

    The novel is set in the 1920s and 1940s. Both world wars are elided, the one before it opens, the other between one chapter and the next, but in the background is the fierce struggle of the suffragettes, when Lilian, Harriet’s mother, had been sent to prison. A clever, principled woman, widowed young, she despairs of her daughter, who has left school without an exam or an ambition, and sends her to help look after the two children of Caroline Macmillan, one-time fellow suffragette, still dearest friend. It is in this worthy, book-lined, vegetarian household that Harriet falls for Vesey, nephew of Caroline’s husband.
  • A Guest of the Party
    15 November 2021

    A Guest of the Party

    After two TV appearances and four radio interviews before 7 a.m., my wife and I were glad we could totter back to the Ambassador in Chicago or the Ritz Carlton in Boston and relax in our suite, lift the telephone and order breakfast for two. But that was half a century ago, when publishers organized publicity tours on a grand scale; now, when friends come to Australia to talk up a new book, I meet them at a hotel (three-star at best) at the back of Kings Cross.
  • There for the Duration
    1 March 2007

    There for the Duration

    ‘It changed my life!’ people sometimes exclaim about a book. While I am fairly certain that has never happened to me, a book certainly changed my book. In the summer of 2004 I had finished writing a history of the home front in the Second World War. The manuscript was overdue and overlong, but at last it was in production and making a lot of work for everyone to ensure that it could be published in time for Christmas. Then one evening, sitting in the garden, I began to read At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. And I knew I’d found what I didn’t know I was looking for,
  • Sophia Fairclough and Me
    1 June 2014

    Sophia Fairclough and Me

    I was first introduced to Sophia Fairclough in 1985 by my new English teacher, the kind who came to lessons without notes and charmed those susceptible to such charm with his raw excitement for good writing. Sophia herself, although fictional, was immediately real to me: a quirky, self-deprecating, parentless artist who took people at face value and made many mistakes as a result. I loved her. I loved her naïvety, her optimism, even her self-destructive behaviour. I wanted to shake her into action but I also wanted to be her. She became an unlikely heroine for me, for though I planned to be a writer when I was older rather than an artist, I was quite prepared to suffer, to be poor, to live off tinned soup, even to fail in love, if these experiences enriched my writing.

Other Links

McNally Editions is an American imprint devoted to hidden gems (2:47)

– In the Paris Review Re-Covered column, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be

– Lucy Scholes is the host of the Virago OurShelves podcast

The Barbara Pym Society

Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach

The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable

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