Today finished my 4th novel,” Barbara Pym wrote in her diary on Oct 10, 1954. “Typed from 10.30am to 3.30pm sustained by, in the following order, a cup of milky Nescafé, a gin and french, cold beef, baked potato, tomato-grated cheese, rice pudding and plums.”
No, it’s not gastronomy. This is friendship. Food was a steadfast companion that nourished everything in Pym, especially her fiction. If she so much as glimpsed a well-dressed woman in a café eagerly pouring ketchup over a plate of fish and chips, she came away with a character, then a plot, then a novel.
Modern fiction, she was aware, demanded heroines who were having passionate, tormented affairs, not ordering more pots of tea, but she simply couldn’t help herself. “People blame one for dwelling on trivialities,” reflects Dulcie, the heroine of No Fond Return of Love (1961), as she tries to figure out why the lemon marmalade is taking so long to jell. “But life is made up of them.”
Pym was not a food writer, but she saw the world as if she were – as if every piece of cake, or even just the crumbs left on the plate, offered the most enticing clues to time, place, class, and character. An acute observer by disposition, she had since 1946 immersed herself in the world of anthropology, through her work at the International African Institute in London, where she became assistant editor of the journal Africa. In 1948, she began a notebook in a department store cafeteria: “Two women at my table in DH Evans Help Yourself. Talking about somebody who has died. Hushed voices.”
That notebook would be the first of 82 that she accumulated over the next three decades. “What riches!” she used to crow after a fruitful session in a park or restaurant. “This middle-aged lady is sitting in Lyons reading the Church Times and eating Scrambled Egg Beano. Her fluty voice.”
It was thanks to this habit of scrutiny that in 1950, aged 37, Pym managed to wrestle into publishable shape her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, about a middle-aged spinster living in a country village with her sister. A chaotic, in-jokey first draft of it had been finished in the Thirties, when Pym was still an undergraduate at Oxford, its characters thinly veiled portraits of her university friends. After the war, with her determination to be a writer renewed, Pym went back to the manuscript, where she did an extraordinary job of self-editing.
She tightened up the characters, sharpened the prose, filled it with irony and, most importantly, set it in the real world, instructing herself: “More household detail. Knitting patterns… doing the altar flowers… Jam.” She underlined the word “Jam” and added: “Victoria plum 1907 with mould on the top.” This was the moment Barbara Pym invented herself as a novelist.
By the time Some Tame Gazelle came out, to warm reviews, Pym was already deep into her next book, Excellent Women, this time focused, right from the start, on precise observation. She copied down notices posted in the vestry of a church, plaques on historic buildings, bits from letters she received at work (“Dear Colleague – are you interested in the origin of the word ‘zebra’?”). One day she noticed a headline in the Daily Mirror: secret love of vanished vicar. She could almost sing the words – the metre was exactly that of a hymn tune.
But her favourite spot for observation was a restaurant, for there she could sit quietly in the background while people interacted with food. “Lunched at the Golden Egg,” she wrote in 1964. “Oh, the horror… The cold stuffiness, claustrophobic placing of tables, garish lighting and mass produced food in steel dishes. And the dreary young people – the egg-shaped menu. But perhaps one could get something out of it. The setting for a breaking off, or some terrible news, or an unwanted declaration of love…”
A great deal of the comedy in Pym’s fiction comes from bad cooking. We find characters opening tins, making Nescafé, putting out a store-bought cake for tea and heating up frozen peas – “like Americans,” Ianthe reflects guiltily in An Unsuitable Attachment (posthumously published in 1982). In No Fond Return of Love, Dulcie visits an aunt and uncle whose cook, Mrs Sedge, sends up a dish known as “boiled baby” – “mince with tomato sauce spread over the top” – followed by semolina pudding.
In Some Tame Gazelle, Belinda politely tries to ignore the cigarette ash that falls into a pot of baked beans. In Excellent Women, Mildred encounters “a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape,’ also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard. Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese.”
But these are not simply novels about bad food. Pym also seems to take it for granted that a comfortable English life would have fine, fragrant cooking in it. Her heroines cook well and easily – indeed, they seem quite unaware that they’re turning out meals of a quality that was supposed to be unheard of in postwar England. In fact, to read Pym’s novels, especially in concert with her diaries, is to discover a revisionist history of mid-century British cooking.
Even for Mildred in Excellent Women, the only one of Pym’s protagonists who has to put up with rationing, there’s little emphasis on privation. A stalwart of her London parish, Mildred keeps a Chinese cookbook by her bed to read when she can’t fall asleep. Admittedly, there’s “curried whale” on a Lyons menu and eggs are scarce, but she eats well in Soho restaurants and can make an excellent salad. Only when Pym wants to make a point about spinsterhood does Mildred have a meagre meal: “I went upstairs to my flat to eat a melancholy lunch. A dried-up scrap of cheese, a few lettuce leaves for which I could not be bothered to make any dressing, a tomato and a piece of bread-and-butter…” or “After the service I went home and cooked my fish. Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.”
As far as Pym was concerned, British cooking was not defined by awfulness; awfulness was simply one of its many entrancing facets. What she prized in life were its contradictions: on her own shopping lists, alongside classic “good cooking” purchases like olive oil, she showed no aversion to frozen fish fingers, margarine and “Miracle Whip”. Perhaps if she had been able to work up indignation on the subject of tinned soups and bottled mayonnaise, she might have established better credentials among gourmet readers, but she had no interest in pouring lavish prose over serious gastronomy, being instead far more concerned with what the food was saying about her characters than with what she herself could say about the food.
However, she was up against a postwar literary canon that didn’t have a lot of patience with Ovaltine. John Betjeman, reviewing Excellent Women in 1950, said that many people would surely find it “tame”, adding, almost apologetically: “To me it is a perfect book.” Most critics simply didn’t know what to make of all Pym’s women in their shabby cardigans, of bedroom scenes in which there is generally a book of Victorian poetry nearby and a nice cup of tea. (“Life’s problems are often eased by hot milky drinks,” says Dulcie.) A short review of Less Than Angels, appearing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1955, may have sealed her fate: she was praised for being “amusing” despite the limitations of “a small canvas and a neat, feminine talent”.
In 1961, after six novels and modest sales, her publisher, Jonathan Cape, abruptly rejected the seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment. The firm’s editorial director, 26-year-old Tom Maschler, was assembling a provocative list: Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Ian Fleming and John Lennon. A novel about a spinster who reads Tennyson and falls in love with a librarian – and, more importantly, one written with Pym’s modesty and good manners – had no place on it.
For 14 years after that, she was unable to get any novel published. She read Kingsley Amis, she read Margaret Drabble – writers who never seemed compelled to zero in on the fateful implications of a steamed pudding, writers blissfully in step with the desires of their publishers. “Why aren’t more of these elderly ladies wearing canvas shoes?” Pym would write, and then scold herself: “But you mustn’t notice things like that if you’re going to be a novelist in 1968-9 and the 70s. The posters on Oxford Station advertising confidential pregnancy tests would be more suitable.”
But she couldn’t stop. She noted three priests getting into a car on Good Friday, and wondered: “Is there a rather good fish pie in the oven – or salmon steaks cooking gently foil wrapped. Or are they really austere?” At lunch in a cafeteria: “I think, why, those women sitting round one are like lunatics in some colour supplement photograph of bad conditions in a mental home. Twitching or slumping or bending low over the food like an animal at a dish (especially if eating spaghetti).” Finally: “What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia?” she wailed in her notebook. “What are the minds of my critics filled with. What nobler and more worthwhile things.”
The article that would rescue her life’s work, restore the only identity she ever wanted, and allow her to die in peace ran in the TLS on Jan 21, 1977, when 42 figures were asked to pick the most overrated and underrated authors of the past 75 years. Only one living writer was named twice in the underrated category, and it was Barbara Pym – picked by her friend Philip Larkin, and the biographer David Cecil. The next day, “my name appeared on the front page”, she recorded, in wonderment.
Friendly letters from Maschler at Cape began to trickle in, asking to see the manuscript he had rejected the previous summer. This was Quartet in Autumn, which Pym had sent to a rival publisher, Macmillan, soon after the TLS article appeared. Macmillan quickly accepted the book, so when she wrote back to Maschler she had the pleasure of informing him that he had lost out. Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. “Hilary [Pym’s sister] and I invented a Maschler pudding – a kind of milk jelly,” she told Larkin.
In 1979, Pym was admitted to hospital with breast cancer. The final entry in her notebooks: “I’ve just eaten a kind of supper – vegetable soup, baked beans and sausage!” And, noticing that the ward housed both men and women, she added a couple of lines from John Donne: “Difference of sex no more we knew/ Than our guardian angels do.” She died on Jan 11, 1980, right after breakfast. Virginia Woolf said that death was the one experience she would never describe; for Pym, it was that last tray of porridge and tea.
This is an edited extract from What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro (Fourth Estate, £14.99). To order a copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk