Jane or Prudence?

Barbara Pym's Single Women, Female Fulfilment and Career Choices in the 'Age of Marriages'

in Critical Survey
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Since their rediscovery as minor comic masterpieces in the late 1970s, Barbara Pym's early novels, produced between 1950 and 1963, have been widely reassessed. Interestingly, the period of Pym's early success precisely spans what I will call the 'long 1950s', coming to an abrupt end in 1963 with the rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment by Pym's regular publisher, Jonathan Cape. This action, in an ironic move that Pym herself might later have appreciated, came appositely at precisely the cultural moment pinpointed by Pym's friend, Philip Larkin, as the point when 'the sixties' actually began: "between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP". However, from being perceived at that point as a quaintly old fashioned novelist incapable of articulating female desire, Pym has since emerged as a writer whose approach to sexuality is in some ways more complex than that of her more fashionable peers, whose embrace of the 'sexual revolution' now looks relatively uncritical. This essay, then, aims to emphasise the conjunction of Pym's early creative period with the 'age of marriages' in the postwar period precisely because of the cultural contradictions involved.

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