Friday, June 3, 2022

It’s a Pym life! Paula Byrne with The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, finally out stateside (Virtual event is July 8)

About nine years ago (, I wrote a post about Barbara Pym. It was celebrating, among other things, three Barbara Pym books on our staff rec cases. But alas, with the retirements of Jane and Anne, it looks like I’m the only Boswell bookseller who is likely to be touting Pym, at least for the time being. Sales had dwindled. Stock was hard to find. I was distraught.

And yet, it appears that Pym is one of those writes who will periodically be discovered and then not exactly forgotten, but overlooked, kind of like Stoner, that John Williams novel that seems to have this writerly recommendation every five years ago, spurring sales. Or maybe one of those rediscoveries will take and she’ll be like Jane Austen, placed firmly in the canon. Ever since Perennial Library gave up (lost?) the rights to their rack-sized editions, publishing has been hither and yon. I’m sure there are presses who would love to give her a glorious treatment, but it’s a good 25 years until even her first novel becomes public domain.

The latest attempt at a resurgence will be no doubt tied to the American publication of Paula Byrne’s The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym. The book was published in the UK by William Collins, and I should note that a year later, the publication is from William Collins, which does not have an American publication program. Collins has had at least two lives in the US since Rupert Murdoch combine it with Harper and Row, most recently as a nonfiction imprint, but this is not one of them. No, it’s from Harper360, which is an import program. Penguin Random House and Hachette also do this – if none of their American imprints (or heck, a competitor’s imprint) want to buy the rights, they bring in a few copies for distribution.

As soon as we saw this was happening, I begged for an event. I had everything in place – a conversation partner in Bill Goldstein (my Pym mentor) and a cosponsor in the Jane Austen Society of North America, Wisconsin region. Pym was a great lover of Jane Austen and Jane Austen fans are often (but not always, it’s a subset) of Pym. I think the publicist didn’t know why this random person was so excited. Anyway, it all came together – Goldstein is talking to Byrne on June 8 at 7 pm central. It’s free and it’s virtual, so I expect all of you to be attend. All you need to do is register.

I’m sure the publicist was probably equally surprised when The New Yorker (sorry - this is likely paywalled) told her, by the way, Thomas Mallon is writing a five-page essay on Barbara Pym in the issue the week before the imported copies go on sale. One of my favorite lines is "The novels’ humor is so sly that a reader sometimes gets halfway into a new sentence before starting to laugh at the one before." It’s an exciting week in the book section – Hilton Als wrote five pages on $45 just released Letters of Thom Gunn. And you thought these blog posts were long.

While the United States continues to have trouble merchandising the Pym backlist, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Great Britain, where their fresh covers are turning heads. My friend John spotted these on social media. France also does a better job with packaging. Also via John, here are the current Pym selections in French. I’ve been very disappointed in any American Pym packaging since 1990. And it’s not just a question of different publishers being involved. Here’s a really nice repackaging of Tom Perrotta’s Election from Berkley, just in time for the Scribner release of Tracy Flick Can’t Win. I also love Tom Perrotta’s books, though perhaps it’s a little early for a Society that puts on conferences.

Speaking of conferences, you never know who will be a Pym fan. When Lisa and I were taking around Michelle Huneven for her Search events, she revealed that not only was she a Pym-ite, but she gave a paper on Some Tame Gazelle at one of the conferences. You can find it and other papers here - you might even recognize a few of the contributors.

And finally, one last Pym artifact. Our good friend Suzanne, who holds the record of being in three of our Boswell-run book clubs, found me this awe-inspiring Barbara Pym figurine. It reminds me of the Nancy Pearl figure that we used to sell from Accoutrements. It holds a place of pride on my desk. Suzanne is good at finding interesting stuff. Who else would send me a paper handled shopping bag from Polsky’s of Akron. Nobody, that’s who. Thank you, Suzanne!

Daniel’s Rec: “Finally, after hearing about this biography for almost a year, it’s available in the United States, and I couldn’t be happier. Byrne chronicles the life of one of my favorite writers, whose work was acclaimed in the 1950s, couldn’t get published in the 1960s, and then was rediscovered in the late 1970s. The text flows in short, punchy chapters - you’ll discover that many of the excellent women (and not quite so excellent men) came from Pym’s own life - one that had more than its share of bad romances and a penchant for stalking people who captured her interest. I don’t think ‘spinster’ quite captures her! And even if you’ve read A Lot to Ask or A Very Private Eye, you don’t know the whole story - her longtime friend Hazel Holt offered readers an expurgated life (minus the Nazi boyfriend, for example). If you don’t know Pym’s work but you’re a Jane Austen fan, you’ll understand by the end why there are so many cross-over fans.”

Looking to read a Barbara Pym book? We currently have four of her titles in stock.  

I should mention that Paula Byrne is a member of JASNA and has written two books on Jane Austen. Her previous biography, Kick, was on Kathleen Kennedy. Bill Goldstein is working on a book on Larry Kramer.

The next Barbara Pym Society conference is September 2 at St Hilda’s College in Oxford ( Focus is on A Few Green Leaves. The North American conference is next March 17 in Boston, with papers being accepted for No Fond Return of Love. Start writing! Or if you haven’t read Pym, I should suggest you start reading.

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