A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters

by Barbara Pym

Paperback, 1985




Vintage (1985), Edition: 1st Vintage Books ed, 358 pages


'Could one write a book based on one's diaries over thirty years? I certainly have enough material,' wrote Barbara Pym. This book, selected from the diaries, notebooks and letters of this much loved novelist to form a continuous narrative, is indeed a unique autobiography, providing a privileged insight into a writer's mind. Philip Larkin wrote that Barbara Pym had 'a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies of everyday life'. Her autobiography amply demonstrates this, as it traces her life from exuberant times at Oxford in the thirties, through the war when, scarred by an unhappy love affair, she joined the WRNS, to the published novelist of the fifties. It also deals with the long period when her novels were out of fashion and no one would publish them, her rediscovering in 1977, and the triumphant success of her last few years. It is now possible to describe a place, situation or person as 'very Barbara Pym'. A Very Private Eye, at once funny and moving, shows the variety and depth of her own story.… (more)


½ (46 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LyzzyBee
(? No indication as to where I got this. I suspect the book stall in Greenwich, but I’m not sure)

An autobiography collected by Barbara Pym’s sister and executrix out of her diaries and letters, this is of necessity not as selective or well-shaped as a conventional biography would be. Some of
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the student writings were pretty gushy, and I found the Stevie Smith-like letters to Elsie almost unbearably pathetic in their attempts at cheer and not caring about her marriage to Pym’s love, Henry; but I did love the letters to Larkin, although I would have liked to read his to her, too), even though the inclusion of these, diary entries and letters to another correspondent gave rather a repetitive effect at times. There was a lot of good detail about the writing of all of her books, the background to Quartet in Autumn being particularly interesting (this from someone who claims not to want to know about the authorial intent – oh well!).

On this repetition, I suppose that in 1984, with Pym gone 4 years previously and the posthumous publication of “Civil to Strangers”, etc., not yet completed, this gave people want they wanted – as much more of Pym’s words and writings as they could possibly get. You can’t really argue with that.

I loved the glimpses of Iris Murdoch (of course), and also of Paul Binding, who I met at the Pym Conference, and who actually introduced BP to IM, at his house!
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LibraryThing member vesuvian
Barbara Pym was the Margaret Atwood of her time - well, maybe that's not quite the way to put it since Atwood is world-renowned now and Pym remains on the periphery. Still, Barbara had insights into souls and showed those insights in small, succinct ways in her novels. Her books can be read as
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"cozies", though they're deeper than her original editors gave her credit for. More is the pity for us through their blindness, because we were owed more of her fiction than we got.
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LibraryThing member ponsonby
Superb edition of Pym's diaries and letters showing the genesis of much of her work and how interwoven with her life her novels were. Indispensable for anyone seriously interested in the Pym canon.
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
This collection of diary entries, brief journal notes, and letters allows the reader to follow the arc of Barbara Pym's life as she moves from besotted college student to WRN to middle-aged office worker, to Booker prize nominee and finally to death from cancer in her sixties. I was surprised at
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how you could understand how her experiences led her to make certain decisions about her life (joining the WRNS an obvious example, but there were others) and how moving it was to watch her mature and cope with life's many disappointments. Of course you learn much about her novels and about how she wrote her life's experiences into them. Her sense of humor and irony never left her! The chief flaw is with the WRNS section which drags on, in part because she was going through a self-absorbed period which thankfully lifted when she returned to London and novel-writing.
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LibraryThing member marti.booker
Very interesting progression from besotted university student to struggling middle ages to finally the poignant reversal of fortunes almost too late to be of any benefit.
LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
A fascinating and intimate glimpse of a writer who is (in my opinion) highly underrated for her subtle humor and dark comic moments. It was heartbreaking to read about Pym's long struggle with rejection as a writer after an initial burst of success, particularly in the midst of a cancer struggle.
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Her wicked humor emerges in her letters and diaries, particularly the dig at John Lennon's long hair as emerging from a female Victorian writer (I cackled at that). I've made it my new goal to introduce as many people as I can to Ms. Barbara Pym.
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7.9 inches


0394731069 / 9780394731063
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