This is the third installment of Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words column.
In my alternative literary universe, people who wish to read romances would be given one option only: Barbara Pym (1913–1980), an English writer whose dry, hilarious, unsentimental 1950s novels of spinsters and curates, office girls, bored wives and nebbishy male intellectuals are as insightful about the gender wars today as they were when written. Readers would start with Excellent Women, Pym’s best-known work, move on to second-best Jane and Prudence, and take special caution with Quartet in Autumn, a later, darker work written after Pym’s fall into obscurity. All materials would be issued in vintage Plume editions from the 1980s.
As domestic comedies, Pym’s books make great use of food, though her women are likely to be poor or bewildered cooks, and the meals are as often absurd as they are comforting. In Crampton Hodnet, a husband announces an affair while topping and tailing gooseberries for a pie. In Jane and Prudence, the cosmopolitan Pru considers herself sophisticated because she rubs garlic on the bowl before dressing the salad. And though Pym herself was not a consummate cook, her food writing inspired her sister, Hilary Pym, and friend Honor Wyatt to publish a cookbook based on her works after her death in 1988, with excerpts to accompany the recipes. Hilary Pym explains: