Blue plaques

All across the country, blue plaques are attached to buildings previously inhabited by individuals or groups of repute. Our area is no exception. The Wychwood Magazine is starting a series of articles based on the stories behind the blue plaques in West Oxfordshire. The series begins with an article by historian and author, David Jones, a frequent visitor to the Wychwoods, recalling the life of one of his favourite authors.

Pym Plaque-2Barbara Pym at Finstock
Barn Cottage, Finstock, was the home of novelist Barbara Pym (and her sister Hilary) from 1972 until her death in 1980. The cottage, formerly a wheelwright’s shop belonging to the adjacent cottage, has been altered in recent years. In Pym’s time there was a garden and double garage to the right, with her bedroom leading on to the flat roof. Soon after arriving, she wrote to her friend Philip Larkin, “We like Finstock very much and the people have been very friendly.” Larkin admired her work, and twice visited Barn Cottage; a photo of 1977 shows them at the cottage gate.

Larkin helped revive Pym’s reputation. Six novels had been published during the ‘fifties, but in 1963 her seventh was rejected as too mild for the lurid tastes of the 1960s. Then in January 1977 the Times Literary Supplement ran an article Reputations revisited, in which several well-known literary figures were asked to name the most under-rated writer of the century. Larkin and Lord David Cecil chose Pym.

Pym Plaque-1She emerged from obscurity. A BBC film crew arrived at Finstock to make a programme about her life and work, causing terrific traffic jams. She was shown walking about the village, at the church, then in the garden at tea with Lord David Cecil. As her cat leapt up and pawed the milk jug “the whole thing might have lapsed into farce, rather like the Mad Hatter’s tea party”, she recalled.

She had continued to write during the years of neglect and her last two novels were written at Finstock. A Quartet in Autumn was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1977, and A Few Green Leaves was published in 1980. Unlike the earlier London-based novels, this last book is set in Finstock, but the themes remain familiar. Pym saw comic potential in the minutiae and minor humiliations of ordinary life; the pricing of jumble, the rivalry of church flower arrangers, newcomers who are seen in the pub but not the church, the bachelors’ meals of savoury rice and fish fingers, the Sanatogen and milky drinks. She also explored the pathos of genteel poverty and disappointed humdrum lives. Older residents will recognise the village she describes, and may even recall the power cut of 4 November 1977 (18.30-21:00); Miss Pym contrived a supper of boiled eggs and toast done on the fire – and a comforting gin and tonic.

June-July 2019