The Lives Of Writers

Reading & Writing

A shameless plug for the Independent On Sunday today – I write each week about the easily lost works of writers, and this is part of this week’s column. Eventually I hope to gather them altogether into a book under the column’s new title, ‘Invisible Ink’.

For the rest of it, see the Indie.

Few careers are so easily destroyed by a fall from fashion. Some writers return to popularity, but none in such a spectacular manner as Pym, a quintessentially English novelist whose twelve miniaturist novels can now be described as both popular and timeless.

Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, one year before the Great War. She attempted her first book, ‘Young Men In Fancy Dress’ at 16 and her second, ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ at 22, periodically submitting it to publishers who always turned it down. She wrote about characters she knew and understood.

By the time another world war broke out, she had still not been published. After, she and Hilary moved to a flat in Pimlico, and she wrote stories for women’s magazines without any real success.

Then, in 1950, Jonathan Cape published a revised version of ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, finally launching her career. Pym’s first six books established her as a unique voice.

In 1963, disaster struck. ‘An Unsuitable Attachment’ was returned without a contract; in the era of the Beatles, she had fallen out of step with the times. Shattered by the rejection, she felt that no-one would ever admire her style of writing again. Further books were rejected as publishers swept out their cupboards and chased new trends.

On January 21st 1977, after sixteen years of obscurity, Pym was named ‘the most underrated novelist of the 20th century’ by both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin in the Times Literary Supplement. Overnight, her books were published (but not by Cape), she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and discovered a huge, eager new audience in America.

Only two years after her rediscovery, she succumbed to a recurrence of breast cancer. She said ‘The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things. The trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.’ She is buried beside her beloved sister.