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Desert Island Discs

Barbara Pym

United News/Popperfoto/Getty Images

The British novelist Barbara Pym faded in and out of fashion during her lifetime. Once there was a 16-year hiatus when no one wanted to publish her at all, she told Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs in 1978. Now, 40 years after her death, she’s back in the news thanks to a biography by Paula Byrne.

Her first novel was published in 1950 and she quickly became successful. But when the “so-called swinging Sixties” arrived, her tales of rural England became “neither sellable nor liked by readers”. For years her manuscripts were rejected. At one point Pym wrote under a male pseudonym “to give me some kind of pull”. That didn’t work either. “The novel inside was the same. Just as unsellable.”

Then, in 1977, the Times Literary Supplement asked famous writers to name underrated novelists. Pym was the only person to be named twice, by Philip Larkin and David Cecil. Like clockwork, the publishers resurfaced. Pym resubmitted Quartet in Autumn, a novel she’d sent her publisher years earlier, and it was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Perhaps as a thank-you, a reading of Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb is one of her chosen tracks.

In all those years I never stopped writing, she says. “I couldn’t stop.” After all, even when she wasn’t writing, she was always on the hunt for ideas. “You don’t realise you’re doing it at the time. It’s, what did Wordsworth say? ‘Emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ It’s more like that.”

🎵 Der Rosenkavalier (Waltzes), Richard Strauss

🎵 Là ci darem la mano, Chopin

🎵 Vissi d’arte (from Tosca), Puccini

🎵 An Arundel Tomb, Philip Larkin

🎵 La Nativité du Seigneur, Olivier Messiaen

🎵 Sto Perigiali to Kryfo, Grigoris Bithikotsis

🎵 Klänge der Heimat (from Die Fledermaus), Johann Strauss II

🎵 In the Bleak Midwinter, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

📚 The Golden Bowl by Henry James

🎁 German white wine

Listen to the full episode here.