With owners Aurora &
Gino retiring as their lease expires so London loses yet another
submerged landmark cafe. The Rendez~Vous
was one of the greatest little finds in central London with its
trademark Espresso Bongo-like sign and a domestic living room
interior featuring a bay-fronted window, covered tables, excellent
wooden chairs, hanging lamps and lashings of warm Formica on
fan Richard Gray writes: 'The Rendez~Vous, with its clientele
of solitary office workers having lunch, instantly transported
me back to the 1950s London described in the novels of Barbara
Pym - a deceptively
genteel writer who often includes vivid descriptions of eating
alone in cafes around Holborn where she herself worked... One
of the interesting things about Pym's books is the importance
of food - most unusual, perhaps unique in English fiction of
the time. She tells us what her characters eat, how they cook
it and where they eat it. Her books are a record of the now lost
English cooking of the 50s & 60s. Descriptions of Italian
and Greek food herald changes in eating habits which were just
beginning as a result of foreign holidays. They also symbolise
a more emotional response to life (Marcia, the only character
in Quartet in Autumn with no interest in food, has a nervous
breakdown)... some of her other novels include scenes in cafes
and, like many 'good but not great' books, they give an extraordinarily
accurate sense of London life at the time they were written.'
No doubt about it, to the
modern reader Pym's novels are deeply shocking. They can seem
like middle-aged orgies of enervation in which the leads fret
existentially over Church chores, library visits and cafe small
talk (imagine Sartre's Road To Freedom macerated in Horlicks).
Pym makes Anita
Brookner look like
writing is deliberately calibrated: "a grey, formal, respectable
thing of measured observances and mild, general undemanding kindness".
Her characters are the emissaries of Moribundia; pictured on her covers they often seem like cyphers
from back issues of The Peoples Friend - bald, be-cardinganed,
faintly troubled, qualified, anxious to please yet somehow incidental
and always feeling at a tangent to themselves. The kind of characters
infact who are now verbotten in modern literature and pretty
well set aside in modern British life too. The Rendez~Vous welcomed
From Quartet in Autumn: "Letty was the only one who
regularly had lunch out of the office. The restaurant she usually
patronised was called the Rendezvous but it was not much of a
place for romantic meetings. People who worked in the nearby
offices crowded in between twelve and two, ate their meal as
quickly as possible, and then hurried away. The man at Letty's
table had been there when she sat down. With a brief hostile
glance he handed her the menu, then his coffee had come, he had
drunk it, left 5p for the waitress and gone. His place was taken
by a woman who began to study the menu carefully. She looked
up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale,
bluish eyes troubled about VAT. Then, discouraged by Letty's
lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni
au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed.
Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her
apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation. Somebody
had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link
might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other
woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather
low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind
of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact."
Comic, Sad, Indefinite: The Life Of Barara
||Barbara Pym was
"tall... with mid-brown hair and bright, noticing eyes...
she had a tendency to lean forward slightly from the waist, perhaps
because she was tall, perhaps because she spent so much of her
time at a desk ... a quiet, neat elegance... an air of watchfulness
as if behind that quiet, unobtrusive facade a formidable intelligence
was observing, taking notes, analysing, distilling."
Born in 1913, in Oswestry, entertaining vicars
and curates became part of Pym family life and would later provide
Barbara with some of her most enduring and endearing characters.
At the age of sixteen, inspired by Aldous
Huxley's Crome Yellow, Barbara attempted her first novel,
"Young Men in Fancy Dress," a work that holds the seeds
of her singular talent. In 1931 Barbara entered St. Hilda's College
at Oxford. It was here that Barbara read English literature,
fell in love, and made life-long friends who would later influence
her literary career.
When war overtook Europe in 1940, Barbara
was assigned to the Censorship office at Bristol and after a
painful romance, she decided to join the Wrens (Women's Royal
Naval Service). In 1944, she was posted to Naples until the end
of the war. After the war, Barbara took a job at the International
African Institute in London, and soon became the assistant editor
for the journal Africa.
To scholars and critics, her six early
novels form the Barbara Pym canon, a body of work that establishes
her unique style and presages her lasting importance. In them,
she probes the human condition, seen through the prism of such
quotidian events as jumble sales and walks in the woods; unassuming
people lead unremarkable lives...
Pym became the chronicler of quiet lives.
In Jane and Prudence middle-aged Jane
is the well-intentioned but far from perfect clergyman's wife
and mother. Prudence, who at 29 is teetering at the edge of spinsterhood,
is an attractive, educated working girl. The two best friends
share memories of their carefree days at Oxford, leisurely lunches,
and gossip, but their ultimate goal is to find a suitable mate
In No Fond Return of Love, Pym introduces
Dulcie Mainwaring, one of those seemingly selfless women who
always helps others and never looks out for herself, especially
in the matters of love. Dulcie is a woman who has a fondness
for Ovaltine and a maxim to go with it: "Life's problems
are often eased by hot milky drinks."
A Few Green Leaves
(published in the last year of Barbara Pym's life) combines the
rural settings of her earliest novels with the themes and characters
of her later works. The result is a compelling portrait of a
town that seems to be forgotten by time, but which is unmistakably
affected by it.
Two years after her modest success as a
writer, in 1963, Barbara submitted An Unsuitable Attachment
to Jonathan Cape, her publisher; to her dismay, it was rejected
as being out of step with the times. In all, twenty publishers
refused to publish her latest novel. This devastating experience
plunged Barbara Pym into what she and her friends would ruefully
term "the wilderness," a literary limbo from which
it appeared she would never emerge.
"I get moments of gloom and pessimism
when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing
again . . . . " she wrote in 1970. But despite the bleak
future, she continued to write. Drawing on her relationship,
at the age of forty-nine, with a thirty-two-year-old antiques
dealer, Barbara started writing The Sweet Dove Died, a
darker novel than her previous works.
In the January 21 1977 issue of the Times
Literary Supplement, Barbara Pym was named (by Philip Larkin)
as "the most underrated novelist of the century." With
astonishing speed she emerged from her wilderness to almost instant
fame and recognition. American audiences were quickly introduced
to Barbara by E.P. Dutton which, in 1978, began publishing all
of her novels. The books were translated into many foreign languages
and Pym enjoyed international acclaim.
Only two years after her rediscovery Barbara
Pym died of cancer in a hospice in Oxford on January 11 1980.
She is buried in the churchyard at Finstock.
The Barbara Pym Society
of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn by Pat Fogarty