Sunday, 12 May 2013

All you ever wanted to know about centenaries but were afraid to ask!

We are about to celebrate a centenary - no, not that one!  On 1st June, which would have been the 100th birthday of the novelist Barbara Pym, the Alliance of Literary Societies will hold its annual conference at Pym's alma mater, St Hilda's College, Oxford, hosted by the Barbara Pym Society.

I have been attending the ALS annual meetings for several years now and have enjoyed memorable weekends hosted by the Jane Austen Society (at Bath), the Elizabeth Gaskell Society (at Knutsford), the Charles Dickens Fellowship (Nottingham), the Johnson Society of Lichfield, and, most adventurously, the Dubliners Literary Society.  In 2017, it will be the turn of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship to be adventurous, as we hope to host that year's conference, in collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association, in Edinburgh.  That will, of course, be another centenary, the 100th anniversary of the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen over a set of golf clubs at Craiglockhart.

Such has been the success of the last few ALS conferences that there is now stiff competition to host them, several years in advance.  The George Eliot Society has already secured 2019, which will be the 200th anniversary of Eliot's birth, and 2016's Charlotte Bronte bicentenary will be celebrated courtesy of the Bronte Society.  These are sure to be major events, with no shortage of delegates.

It is more difficult for a society dedicated to a less well-known author like Barbara Pym, and I say this as a current member of the committee.  To fully appreciate Pym's comic genius (assuming you don't already), it is useful to read her out loud or to see her works dramatised.  In the past, the Barbara Pym Society has enjoyed readings by leading actors and actresses such as Miriam Margolyes and Joanna David, but we find that our D-I-Y efforts, involving members of the society not noted for their dramatic talent, work just as well.  As I told one guest speaker, somehow the worse it is, the better it is.  I can't really explain what I mean by this - you'd have to be there, as they say.

Naturally, with it being the centenary, we have worked hard to organise celebratory events in the current year, often against the odds.  The media have not been particularly helpful, showing little interest in an author whose work has never been adapted for television (though it has frequently been on radio).  This would hardly have surprised Pym herself, who is an inspiration to many writers precisely because she knew the pain of unexplained rejection.  Having had six successful novels published between 1950 and 1961 and become a favourite with library borrowers, she suddenly found herself on the scrap-heap, told by her publishers that she was out of step with the times.  She spent another fifteen years in the literary wilderness, until a chance event made her work more sought-after than ever before.

Although she had not been moving in literary circles, Pym had maintained a long correspondence with Philip Larkin, a (seemingly unlikely) fan of her work.  By coincidence, Larkin was one of two major literary figures who chose her as "the most underrated writer of the twentieth century" in a piece that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977.  (The other was Lord David Cecil.)  Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Barbara Pym and there was no shortage of publishers willing to take her next book - which was nominated for the following year's Booker Prize.  Sadly, her new-found fame was short-lived, as she died of cancer in 1980.

Despite this late flowering and the posthumous publication of some of her earlier work, Pym remains not exactly a household name, though she does have a tendency to crop up in the oddest places.  Recently I was telling an Oriental lady about the friendship between Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin, and she responded, "Well, I've never heard of that other person, but I love Barbara Pym!"  Her celebrity fans range from Alexander McCall Smith to Jilly Cooper to Sebastian Faulks to the Reverend Richard Coles.  In celebration of the centenary, the BBC has graciously agreed to repeat-broadcast her appearance on Desert Island Discs and a radio adaptation of her novel Jane and Prudence.  

The ALS conference will be replacing the Barbara Pym Society's usual spring meeting in London, but the Pym Society will still hold its annual conference (this year entitled "Remembering Barbara") in September at Oxford.  Many of the delegates will be academics from Europe and from the USA and Canada, where Pym's work is widely appreciated.  In fact, the Society has around the same number of members on the other side of the Atlantic as it does in the UK, and they have their own annual conference in Boston.  As well as the annual conferences, the centenary is being recognised with a short story competition (details here: ) and a book by society archivist Yvonne Cocking containing all kinds of intriguing information from her research into Pym's papers held by the Bodleian Library (where the young Barbara would carry out her own "research" into the habits of young men she had her eye on).

In addition to Pym's centenary, the ALS will this year be celebrating its 40th anniversary - not quite the same thing, but a notable achievement nevertheless.  After the speaker sessions on Pym and Larkin and a little dramatised reading to whet your appetite, there will, of course, be tea and cake, as well as the opportunity to meet other people who admire a range of authors - Trollope, Woolf, Marlowe, John Clare, Richard Jeffries and Arnold Bennett are just a few of those who will be represented. 

Incidentally, if you are reading this now and thinking, "I wish I'd booked!", it's not too late.  As long as you are a member of any literary society affiliated to the ALS (which includes the SSF, WOA, Edward Thomas Fellowship and most other major societies), you are entitled to attend, and you still have time to get a place if you make your way to  and follow the instructions.  It would be lovely to see you there - we're going to have a great time!
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