Cover Image: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym

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On the basis of generous marking, I've rounded up to a 4. I requested this on the back of re-reading Some Tame Gazelle, which I enjoyed much more in my 50s than I had in my 20s, and which made me want to read more Pym. I still may but, unfortunately, this biography has reminded me not to necessarily look too hard at the genesis of books or the lives of their authors. I'm 30% of the way in, and it feels as if I've been reading about Miss Pym's adventures for weeks. She's heavy going - all of the unfunny talk and the details about shopping and the never ENDING angst over love and the ghastly personae. The author keeps telling me how funny Pym is, how extravagantly witty, but I'm not feeling it. This early-stage review is because I'm not sure I'm going to finish reading  the whole book... On the plus side, the research is very thorough, and I'll give Robert Liddell's Kind Relations a go at some point.
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Having read a few of Barbara Pym's novels I was intrigued to read about her life as I knew virtually nothing about her. I suppose I was expecting a genteel lady and was shocked when I began to read of her rather risque lifestyle. The first part of the book is over detailed with her dalliances with different men and I began to feel like giving up.

She also had two alter egos who she diarised as being the ones who did the things that BP did not and which she referred to as Sandra and later Pymska. Long exerpts from her diaries and books made this book over long for me and a little dry to read.
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Paula Byrne’s latest book is a biography of the author Barbara Pym. Pym wrote a series of novels about everyday women in the middle of the twentieth century, was briefly acclaimed, then forgotten and then rediscovered in the years immediately before her death in 1980. If you haven’t read any of them, then you really should – she’s been compared to Jane Austen. She was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977 for Quartet in Autumn, but I’ve mostly read her earlier books – my favourite of hers Excellent Women, which I have in a rather delightful Virago Designer Hardback edition.

After growing up in Shropshire, Barbara Pym went up to Oxford in the early 1930s. There she threw herself into student life – and into love. She travelled to Germany in the 1930s, was a Wren during the war and then worked for years as an assistant editor for a journal of anthropology. Her novels often feature anthropologists, as well as vicars – whether she’s writing about London’s bedsit land or English country life. In later life, she was friends with Philip Larkin – which in part led to her rediscovery in the late 1970s

Using Pym’s own diaries and papers, Byrne has written a comprehensive re-examination of Pym’s life piecing together her relationships, friendships and love affairs as well as her career in publishing. It’s a fascinating insight into the life behind the writer – and how her personal life bled into her novels. Considering that she never married and that her books focus on unmarried or in some way frustrated women, you may be surprised by what you discover about her. Two of Byrnes other books – Kick (about Kathleen Kennedy) and Mad World (about Evelyn Waugh) are on my keeper shelf of history books already and this would join them, if it wasn’t an ebook! And if I haven’t already won you over with my thoughts, it was on the Times’ list of best books of 2021 too.
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If you enjoy Barbara Pym novels, you will love this book. It presents a lovely read on Pym's life; her happy childhood, her years reading English at St. Hilda's College, her finding Oxford as 'intoxicating', her fasciantion for Germany. For the book lover, there are many passages that make you think 'is this in <insert book>'? Reading about a loved writer is lovely that way. I kept looking for her excellent women, her men, the scientific tempers of some of her characters, church and more in the pages of this biography. It helped that I was on a Pym roll this year, so I could dip in and out of her novels and this book. There are diary entries, letters, her inner thoughts put together from her writing—A chunky and worthwhile read.
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2.5 rounded up to 3 - Biography of the author Barbara Pym which would have been very interesting if the author hadn’t have included so many excerpts from the novels showing how the characters/situations came about.  It was beyond tedious and made the book far longer than it ought to have been.  All this lost my interest and is why it took me so long to get through it and I never take this long to read books!  Had she stuck to diaries and letters it would have been far more concise and consequently a huge improvement.  All those words, all those pages and yet not a single photograph apart from the one on the cover.  It would have been nice to put a face to all the names mentioned.  Bridport, incidentally is in Dorset, not Devon!  Barbara led quite a racy life and always with the wrong men (for her) and came across as quite selfish and snobby.  Can’t say I took to her at all but maybe reading another biography might change my mind.
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What an absolute romp.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is the biography of one of Britain's most underappreciated writer Barbara Pym. Paula Byrne delves into the delicious life of. Barbara Pym and brings her back to life with a non fiction book that reads like fiction.

Throughout the book Byrne throws light on the events in Pym's life that shaped who she was and the things that influenced her writing: growing up in Lancashire, her time at Oxford, the loves and losses, the war, the men. All the things that were important to Barbara Pym. 

We are also privy to the greatest heartache that she felt. Not the men who she loved and lost but the fact her work wasn’t appreciated in her own time. A true crime.

The greatest thing about The Adventures of Barbara Pym is the way the narrative is constructed. Byrne could have easily have produced a non fiction book that was very matter of fact but what she has done is presented Pym as a character that we can care for, fall in love with and ultimately root for. This is what makes it such an interesting read. 

A true gift for Pym fans the world over.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne is available now.

For more information regarding Paula Byrne (@paulajaynebyrne) please visit

For more information regarding William Collins (@WmCollinsBooks) please visit their Twitter page.
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This is a difficult one to review for me as although I read and fairly enjoyed Pym's books decades ago I really disliked her in her 'adventures', and her manner of gathering characters - what happened to imagination?  This book was far too long, and should have been edited.  Apart from that I couldn't get over how immature Pym seems to have been, even into her old age. With her alter egos and stalking of men she fancied while she was at  Oxford she must have been an annoyance to the  serious female scholars who were lucky enough to get there. Then there were her Nazi sympathies which lasted for years and she saw it at close quarters, so they can't be regarded as a small misjudgement.  So as you can see, I'm reviewing the very flawed character of Barbara Pym as much as this book.

I was sent a digital copy of the book by NetGalley via the publisher for review.
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I love what Paula Byrne has done here, she hasn't just produced a very readable and enjoyable biography of Pym, she has managed to give a flavour of the author's own style too. Women of Pym's generation had to fight hard to be heard and Byrne captures this beautifully. Highly recommended
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I'll admit I perhaps didn't come to this book for the most obvious reason.  I didn't actually know anything about Barbara Pym or her books, but have read and enjoyed several biographies by Paula Byrne and so was keen to read this.  I'm grateful to NetGalley and Fourth Estate Books for my copy of her latest book in exchange for an honest review.

Barbara Pym was an English novelist whose work falls into two tranches.  In the 1950s, she published a number of comic novels before being rejected by her publisher.  When, in the 1970s, the poet Philip Larkin and critic Lord David Cecil nominated her as the most underrated novelist of the century, she gained recognition for her work and published further novels, including the Booker Prize nominated 'Quartet in Autumn'.

This biography of Barbara Pym's life is based on the extensive diaries she left behind after her death in 1980, plus close readings of the novels themselves.  This takes the reader through her childhood, time at Oxford University, wartime service in the Women's Royal Naval Service, work at the International African Institute and cohabitation with her sister, Hilary Pym.  Although she never married, there are numerous love affairs along the way and various unrequited infatuations.  All of this is told in a lot of detail - sometimes overwhelmingly so as this is a very long book.

The main thrust of Byrne's argument is that there was a lot more to Barbara Pym than the rather stuffy and conservative stereotype that saw her books being rejected by publishers in the progressive 1960s.  She was considered to be a woman writing about 'small' lives in villages, spinsters and vicars, with gentle and middle class humour.  Instead, Byrne shows us a more controversial figure who enjoyed sex outside marriage, was fiercely independent, adopted (sometimes bizarre) alter egos depending on her mood and even sympathised with radical political views (demonstrated by her relationship with a Nazi in the 1930s - yeah, more of this in a bit).  I personally loved the bits about her relationship with Philip Larkin, someone who I find fascinating and who proved to be instrumental in resurrecting Pym's literary career.  A controversial figure himself, Larkin is presented fairly sympathetically and engagingly.

There's much to enjoy here if you are a fan of Barbara Pym's books - they are discussed fairly thoroughly, with interesting links made to Pym's own biographical details.  It isn't surprising, for example, that she writes about a women being in love with a gay man when her own life was also following this path.  Although I wasn't familiar with the books, I'll admit the analysis did pique my interest and I'm keen to pick up some of Pym's earlier, more comedic writing.

Those familiar with Byrne's writing will recognise the affectionate, fairly informal style with which she treats her subjects - plus the links made to Byrne's own interests (primarily Jane Austen).  I liked the descriptive and slightly whimsical chapter titles - plus they were very helpful in aiding me to navigate the audiobook which I also listened to alongside reading.

I did hit a few niggles though with this book.  The repeated use of 'Miss Pym' was a little grating in the audiobook and the huge cast of characters meant it was sometimes tricky to remember who was who - I liked that there was a picture section in the book so I could put names to faces.  However, my biggest issue was with the way that Pym's romantic relationship with the Nazi was presented and almost excused - I found this a bit difficult to swallow in a modern context.  I do realise that people in the 1930s were perhaps not fully aware of the extent of what was happening in Nazi Germany, but Pym was a regular visitor and Byrne also has the benefit of hindsight with which to condemn the relationship - and doesn't.

However, these issues do not overshadow what is otherwise an excellent, engaging and accessible look at Barbara Pym's life and legacy.  I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys biographies of interesting (if not always likeable) figures who were somewhat out of step with the expectations of their day - similarly, I'd point you in the direction of Byrne's other fantastic biographies on Kick Kennedy ('Kick') and Evelyn Waugh ('Mad World:  Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Bridehead').

FInally, a note on the audiobook which is read by Antonia Beamish.   Although the reading is well done and fairly lively, she is both frightfully posh (not a problem) and awfully slow (more of an issue).  I had to speed her up a bit in order to keep my interest and found a few jarring pronunciations, not least Sylvia Plaaarrrth which threw me a bit.  I did like the audiobook but - on reflection - preferred the book with its photo section.
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Paula Byrne does a brilliant job of bringing Barbara Pym to life in this engrossing 'warts-and-all' biography. Pym has enjoyed another resurgence in popularity in recent years with the Virago reprints of her novels, but is still often regarded like many of the 'excellent women' who populate her novels - mousy spinsters leading uneventful lives in post-war England. The reality was much racier, and Byrne paints Pym as a woman who was groundbreaking for her time in many respects, not least sexually. Byrne chronicles Pym's love affairs and other adventures in short, pacy chapters in the style of the eighteenth-century picaresque novels which Pym enjoyed reading.

Byrne doesn't shy away from the less appealing aspects of Pym's life story, most notably her love affair with a Nazi officer and her infatuation with the Third Reich - but she is able to contextualise this in a way that avoids any sense of special pleading, so that the overall portrait of Pym is an admiring and affectionate one. Byrne also writes insightfully and authoritatively about the novels themselves, drawing on a huge range of archival materials to show their genesis and the ways in which Pym drew on her own experiences and the people she knew in her writing. It has made me very keen to re-read all of her novels.

Meticulously researched and immensely readable, this is an outstanding literary biography, which I would highly recommend to all lovers of Barbara Pym and to those who have yet to discover her!
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I am a self-confessed ‘literary’ biography addict and was therefore delighted when Netgalley and the publisher, William Collins, granted me permission to review Paula Byrne’s The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, a new and much-needed biography about this fascinating and, to my mind, under-rated author. 

I only discovered Barbara Pym in the last few years but was instantly enamoured with her witty and wry writing, enjoying Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence in particular. However, I didn’t know much about the author herself so I was utterly enthralled by Byrne’s well-researched and comprehensive biography. Although there is a huge amount of information (Byrne does a particularly good job of placing events in Pym’s life in the context of global events), it never becomes overwhelming to the reader. My only suggestion would be that Byrne settles on a single name for each of Pym’s love interests; the interchangeable use of first name, surname or nickname meant that I sometimes had to double-check who she was referring to. 

Presenting a balanced view of your subject is always a challenge for a biographer but Byrne skilfully brings Pym to life and acknowledges the mistakes she made (particularly her wilful naivety about Nazism) without resorting to idealising or demonising Pym. Byrne is also able to be sensitive about the more personal elements of Pym’s life: her complicated relationships with men, a distressing sexual encounter, without turning her into a victim. Instead Byrne presents Pym as a fascinating, flawed, and incredibly talented writer who was able to zoom in on the small details of life to say something bigger: about the role of women in society, for example, ageing or homosexuality. Pym’s novels, however, are often dismissed as ‘prim...tame and outdated’ and she was devastated when, in the 1960s, her publisher rejected her work, considering it old-fashioned in comparison to the fact-paced spy thrillers popular at the time. 

As Byrne writes, Pym has never received the recognition that her work deserves although she has always had a small but dedicated group of followers. The poet Philip Larkin was among her greatest fans and partially responsible for championing her later work and ensuring that she regained some fame and popularity in her later years. Although I’m not convinced that this biography will win Pym new admirers, it will certainly re-ignite the enthusiasm of her existing fans. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately rushed to order the few Pym novels that I hadn’t yet read and fully intend on re-reading the ones I already own. Now that I know how frequently and ruthlessly Pym ‘mined’ her own life for inspiration, her books will have an added poignancy and interest.
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Paula Byrne’s witty, picaresque chapter headings and jaunty style channel Barbara Pym’s own joie de vivre, her quirky sense of humour and her ability to transmute the everyday and the commonplace, ‘the trivia of the common round’, into something extraordinary. I felt as if I had got to know Barbara Pym so well that when I came to the final chapter, in which she tries to survive her favourite season, spring, I cried all the way through it. 

As a lifelong Barbara Pym fan, I was fascinated to learn about her friends’ fictional counterparts: for example, how the shallow, egotistical, cruel Henry Harvey, who caused Pym so much heartbreak, was transformed into the vain, melodramatic hypochondriac Archbishop Hoccleve who ‘is unable to get up in the morning, complains about moths spoiling his clothes, and has a ‘penchant for Middle English’. Pym had the gift of transforming tragedy into the absurdly comic. 

Paula Byrne deals with Pym’s many disappointments with great compassion and makes the reader aware of the humiliations of being ‘an excellent woman’ in an era in which all women were expected to be housewives and mothers. Pym was particularly aware of the shame of having to share a bathroom in bedsit land. 

Yet Pym had no shortage of suitors. Byrne asks whether Pym subconsciously chose unattainable men, analysing her predilection for falling in love with homosexual men: she even falls in love with a dead homosexual, Denton Welch, perhaps the ultimate in unattainability. 

Even if you aren’t a fan of Barbara Pym, this book provides an insight into the life of a single woman in the post-war years and her struggle to be taken seriously as a writer as she was, very unjustly, labelled old-fashioned at the outset of the ‘swinging sixties’. 

As Byrne shows us, this supposedly prudish spinster had an alter ego, sexy Sandra, who bit her lover in a fit of passion, wore fish-net stockings and provocative red blouses, and read Samson Agonistes naked in bed with her lover. Pym had an extremely enlightened attitude to homosexuality for the time, talking about a gay friend in Egypt ‘enjoying the sinshine’. 

I hesitate to criticise such a detailed and dedicated piece of work, but I was disappointed that the proofreading left much to be desired. Nearly all the German phrases quoted from Barbara Pym were transcribed incorrectly (Pym wrote them correctly - I checked). For example, Pym’s ‘Alle sagen Ja! Ein Reich, ein Führer, ein Ja’ becomes: ‘Alle safen Ja! E in Führer, fin Ja’ - which obviously makes no sense at all. Wien (Vienna) becomes Wein, küsst becomes kuszt, umlauts are omitted from Fräulein and Träume, German nouns aren’t capitalised, the ‘c’ in Brücke is omitted. The Latin phrase ‘Non frustra vixi’ is written ‘Non frusta vixi’ on one occasion but is written correctly otherwise. 

There are some clumsy expressions which you wouldn’t expect to find in a scholarly biography, for example: ‘the mundane, which he transcends into something magical’; ‘Bitter winds ... dipped temperatures’; ‘Dor and Links failed to intervene on the plans’. Robert Liddell’s book is cited as ‘A Mind on Ease’, not ‘at Ease’. Whilst some chapters are beautifully written, others give the impression of being rushed. I felt that some of the details about obscure relatives or acquaintances could have been cut. 

Noticing mistakes almost spoilt my reading experience, but I raced through this biography and would read it again to immerse myself in the life of the fantastic Barbara Pym. I can’t do justice to all the marvellous moments in this biography in this short review but I will keep dipping into this celebration of an extraordinary author as I read and reread Barbara Pym. 

Many thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for the opportunity to review this ARC in return for an honest review.
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I liked this biography of an excellent writer but I did find the chapter headings and “humour” a bit much sometimes. “The woman who fell in love with a Nazi” jarred a bit but then it is true and Ms Byrne tackles all aspects of a complex life with honesty and integrity. I learned a lot about how a girl from Shropshire became a best selling author after much struggling. I especially enjoyed the Oxford chapters as I have often wondered what it would have been like to go up to Oxford as a student from a rural and not especially wealthy background. Ms Byrne captures this beautifully and Miss Pym certainly throws herself into it. 

There is a lot packed into this and the use of diaries and contemporaneous papers gives it depth and allows us to see behind the public writer to the private person. It succeeded in sending me back to the novels of Barbara Pym and I will look out for other work by Paula Byrne.

I was given a copy of this book by Netgalley in return for an honest review.
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If you love the novels of Barbara Pym, you will likely want to read this book, which will give you all the details on her life and career from the time she started writing as a young woman -- and I mean ALL the details, largely taken from her voluminous diary. (Oh, except for the pages she tore out, leaving us with some tantalizing holes in the narrative.) You'll meet the living prototypes for Pym's fictional characters, the human beings she observed which such a wry sense of humor. Byrne does not skip over episodes that previous biographers may have found embarrassing -- like her early love affairs, and her flirtation with Nazism (before its full evil became apparent). Pym is a writer I always think of as middle aged, so it was especially enlightening to read about her as a young woman, and realize that this was the source of much of her fiction -- her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, is based on projecting herself and her circle of Oxford friends thirty years into the future! I found it a bit weird and sad that she was so fixated on so-called "love" that she gave herself to unappreciative, unavailable, or unworthy lovers, another theme that comes out in the fiction. Though not easy to live through for her, it gave us some wonderful reading.
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I have greatly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s books: I first discovered her early novels in the public library in my teens and was delighted when the more recent books were published. So I was quite keen to learn more about her.

The jokey title and chapter headings should have warned me that this was not a style of biography i would appreciate. The early chapters paint Pym as a young woman entirely obsessed with herself and her relationships on a very superficial level, an unflattering and unsympathetic portrait. Many youthful diaries would probably look much the same and many of their authors would probably cringe at having them exposed in such detail. I found this neither helpful in understanding Pym, nor interesting.

While the influence of her relationships on her writing was obviously relevant, I wasn’t very interested in how her characters were based on the people in her life although I might have been had the people involved been more vividly described. But the parade of men she chose to fall in love with became indistinguishable. Were they all such rotters? Or was she more difficult and demanding than the author allows us to see? The source material seems to be treated uncritically, with the letters and diaries taken at face value.

I wanted to know more about *how* she wrote and the relationship between her work in anthropology and her writing. The author makes some superficial statements about the link between anthropology and fiction which suggest a lack of familiarity with anthropology.

A close comparison of the early drafts of her work with the published versions could have been valuable but the author simply quotes large chunks of the former uncritically.

The writing style leaves something to be desired and better editing might have helped. First names and surnames are swapped for no apparent reason, making for a difficult read, especially where people had names which could be either, like Henry Harvey. The author’s misuse of the word “expiated” jumped out at me at one point and there were some rather silly observations, such as the notion that if Jane Austen had been published sooner we would have had more of her novels to read. And i was puzzled by a sudden reference to cat food late in the book when, in spite of overly detailed descriptions of Pym’s domestic arrangements, no cats had been mentioned.

I don’t think this biography does justice to Barbara Pym as an individual or as a writer but I hope that it may encourage people to read her work.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC.
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A delightful and lively account of Miss Pym's adventures in life.  She is clearly a real character with quirks, needs and a clear eye. Paula Byrne brings her to life, she jumps off the page with an energy that appeals.  Her strengths and weaknesses are conveyed with equal importance and the chapters are short and punchy to keep interest.  I will now go and read a Barbara Pym, something I haven't done for 30 years.
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I must admit that I have never read a Barbara Pym novel, despite her being on my to read list for many years. I found this biography of Pym absolutely fascinating and will definitely be following it up by reading her novels. . This is a beautifully written, engrossing and painstakingly researched biography. The author has made great use of Pym's archive using  her diaries, letters and novels to really bring Pym to life and portray her as an outstanding woman and writer of her generation. I was particularly fascinated and drawn into Pym's years at Oxford and the time she spent in Nazi Germany. A highly recommended and hugely readable biography.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a digital ARC.
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What A Treat This Is....
What a treat this is. A well compiled, well written and very readable account of the life and times of the wonderful Barbara Pym. Extensively researched and packed with extracts of letters, diaries and novels. Any fan of Pym should be delighted to read.
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Why do people read biographies of writers?  Are they interested in their life or their books? After fairly scandalous rejection and neglect in the 1960s and 1970s, Barbara Pym's reputation has risen steadily and justifiably ever since and it's about time a substantial biography was written.  I love Pym's novels but was disappointed by this. Paula Byrne has done her research and is determined to address the tendency Pym's friend, biographer and posthumous editor, Hazel Holt, to overlook the importance of key relationships with men and her brief but regrettable flirtation with Nazism in the 1930s, which Byrne covers with characteristic thoroughness. Do we really need to know about the "pink dull crepe dress [...] purchased in Bath" that Barbara wore to her sister's wedding in 1942, for example? Would anyone write this about a male novelist? For me this level of detail unbalances the book, as does the "adventures" conceit which doesn't really come off (she didn't really have many) or the chapter titles, which quickly become tiresome.  Pym's first novel is published roughly two-thirds way through the biography and more attention is paid to her early, unpublished novels (some published after her death), than many of the novels she did publish.  Read this if you love Pym, but I would have liked it to have reflected more of Pym's succinctness and "whimsical and perilous charm".
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This biography of Barbara Pym is absolutely WONDERFUL!  In fact, I'm feeling a bit stressed writing this review as I worry I can't do it justice.  Paula Byrne has achieved such an amazing thing here - the fabulous and comprehensive chronicling of the details of Miss Pym's life (the "commonplace" - if you know, you know!), combined with the pace and intrigue of a novel.  I was entranced by Miss Pym's world and my life was on hold because I could not stop reading this book!  FABULOUS!  And I was so sad when I'd finished the book, even though I obviously knew how it would end, because I had grown to love Pym.  I have always loved her books and this biography was such a wonderful tribute to Miss Pym the writer and Pym the woman.   Brava Paula Byrne!  

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this book.  I'm off to find Paula Byrne's other biographies and all the books mentioned in this one!
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