“For what could be more peculiar than a crowd of grown-up people, most of them middle-aged or even elderly, collected together . . . for the purpose of discussing scholarly niceties that meant nothing to most of the world?”
From “No Fond Return of Love” by Barbara Pym (1961)
What indeed? Peculiar or not, Barbara Pym would no doubt have been amused by the goings-on in Cambridge this weekend: A crowd of grown-up people, most of them middle-aged or even elderly, collected together for the purpose of discussing . . . the works of Barbara Pym, one of the most famous 20th-century British writers Americans have never heard of.
The North American chapter of The Barbara Pym Society gathers every year at Harvard University to celebrate her novels, which for the most part focus on the humdrum lives of unassuming people in smallish English villages.
But this year’s meeting is special. As hardly anyone knows, 2013 is the Barbara Pym centenary, the 100th anniversary of her birth, and there will be — to use a favorite Pym modifier — “suitable” events to honor her. Chief among them is the world premiere of a new choral composition commissioned by the society, based on Pym’s favorite hymn (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”).
Pym published nine novels between 1950 and her death, at 66, in 1980; three more were published posthumously. Her works, which are not always easy to find in this country, include “A Glass of Blessings,” “An Unsuitable Attachment,” “Excellent Women,” and “Quartet in Autumn,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977.
Characterized by wry humor and sharply observed, eccentric characters, her novels have much to say about mousy spinsters, jumble sales, and clergymen, who are often portrayed unflatteringly. (One Pym scholar has calculated that there are 75 clergymen in her works, averaging 5.76 a novel.)
Pym’s heroines (there are no heroes; the men are either heels or ineffectual) are generally sensible, genteel, modestly dressed, intelligent, and often unappreciated, not unlike Sybil in “Downton Abbey” or Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
Some have described Pym as Austen without the period costumes. Others have been less charitable, calling her Austen without the plots. “If ‘Seinfeld’ famously is the show about nothing, Pym’s works are the books about nothing,” said conference organizer Tom Sopko. “They are very ordinary people acting like we all do even though we pretend otherwise.”
Even the most diehard “Pymians” concede her work is not for everyone (though they believe that it should be), even now, when “Downton Abbey’’ has unleashed a national curiousity about the anatomy of British social classes.
“She seems to attract all sorts of people, but not terribly many of each of them,” said Yvonne Cocking, 83, in an interview from her home in Oxfordshire, England.
Cocking is the society’s archivist and historian, and enjoys the rare distinction of having worked in the same office as Pym in the mid-1960s. She has spent the last 12 years studying Pym’s papers at the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford, and her new book, “Barbara in the Bodleian: Revelations From the Pym Archives,” will be released at the conference. (She declined to preview any revelations.)
“I don’t think [Pym] is exciting enough for most people,” said Cocking, who acknowledged dismissing Pym herself years ago. “I was a young woman who preferred the exciting life and I couldn’t understand women who would stay home in the evening and have a boiled egg for supper,” she said.
There will be 100 people attending the sold-out conference, most of whom come every year. “You can use the word ‘fanatic,’ ’’ said Perri Klass, a New York pediatrician and writer, and a longtime member of the society. Last year Klass gave a lecture on the alcoholic drinks mentioned in Pym’s novels; another year she spoke about the knitting references, of which there are a scant few. “It was a true act of fanaticism,” said Klass, herself a knitter. “I read all her collected diaries and letters.”
This year, one of the speakers is Laura Shapiro, a writer, culinary historian, and former columnist at Newsweek. Her talk is called “Smoked Salmon and a Perfectly Ripe Peach: How Pym’s Work Challenges the Soggy-Tinned-Peas Version of British Culinary History.”
“One of the things that draws me back and back and back to Barbara Pym is that there is so much food that moves through these books,” Shapiro said. “She has a parade of terrible meals, and she also has wonderful meals, and that to me is a wonderful thing because as you know, British food has one of the worst reputations in the world.”
Mostly, though, she is drawn back by Pym’s “understated, unobrusive” writing. “A sentence, a paragraph, a turn of phrase will just make you want to stand up and crow with delight,” Shapiro said. “It just grips you with its charm and its wit, and it’s full of the trivial material of everyday life. What they wore and ate, what you see protruding from the string bag as they walked on the street, the book they have open when eating at Lyons. . .’’
This year’s conference features the standard Barbara Pym Society agenda. “We listen raptly to several papers,” said Nancy Macmillan, a retired Boston editor. There will be a dramatized reading from one of Pym’s books, and a singing of the Pym Society anthem, “Unsuitable Things,” to the tune of “My Favorite Things.” Members will also sing from the “Pymnal,” a collection of hymns mentioned in Pym’s writings.
To commemorate Pym’s birthday, there will be champagne and cupcakes, and a special Friday night church service, “exactly the thing she knew,” Sopko said.
Pym was a devoted member of the Church of England, and loved the “high” or Anglo-Catholic branch of the church, with its elaborate ceremonial rituals. In her honor, the weekend will begin with a high-church service of Solemn Evensong and Benediction at the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill. It will include the first performance of a new choral composition by Boston composer Rodney Lister; the words are from Pym’s favorite hymn.
Macmillan, who lives on Beacon Hill and likes “all the churchy things,” has been preparing for the conference for some time, rereading Pym novels and “thinking in Pymish ways.”
She takes the MBTA Red Line to the conference and inevitably, she said, there will be an “illustration of Pymishness,” on the train platform. “I will notice another woman, or two or three, even in some cases a man with a woman, and I will know instantly they are going to the Pym conference,” she said. Just by looking at them.
“We tend to have somewhat untidy hair, and tend to be probably at least in our 60s if not in our 70s,” said Macmillan, sounding Pymish herself. “We dress in colorful but comfortable garb. We may wear things like hand-knit ponchos or hand-knit sweaters and warm jackets and sensible shoes. Most of us wear glasses, from too much time spent reading Barbara Pym and other books. We don’t wear a lot of makeup. We are not unattractive.”
She reflected for a moment. “If you have seen pictures of Barbara Pym,” she said, “we kind of look like that.”
The Solemn Evensong & Benediction celebrating the centenary of Barbara Pym will take place March 15, 6:30 p.m., at The Church of the Advent, 30 Brimmer St., Beacon Hill. Free and open to the public.