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"An Unfortunate Reference:" Marks & Spencer vs. Barbara Pym

Walking around the center of Enfield town this morning I saw a Marks & Spencer store. All of a sudden, I remembered how while reading through Barbara Pym’s manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I discovered a Pym scandal. Perhaps it was only a storm in a teacup, but the Legal Department at Marks & Spencer took it very seriously.

It all started with what Barbara Pym called a “completely innocent" sentence from her new novel, at the time, Jane and Prudence.

“‘Oh yes’ Jane agreed; ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer’s, as we’ve never been used to anything better!’

 Mrs. Doggett did not answer, and Jane remembered that of course she went to her dressmaker for fittings and ordered hats from Marshall’s and Debenhams.’”

On 30th October 1953m a letter arrived from the Legal Department of Marks & Spencer: addressed to Barbara Pym  c/o  Messrs. Jonathan Cape. The content was a comment on p. 125 of Jane and Prudence

“This reference is clearly derogatory of this company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses sold by the company are of inferior quality, and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s and Debenhams’

We are proud of the quality of the goods sold by us , and take great exception to this passage in a book which being a Book Society’s recommendation and being written by an author whose work, according to the publishers’ ‘ blurb’ on the dust cover is at times “worthy of Jane Austen” no doubt enjoys a large circulation. 

We must, therefore, ask you to inform us at once what steps you propose to take to correct the harm done by the publication of this matter and to prevent further publications.”

Wren Howard, Pym’s editor from Jonathan Cape, suggested that Pym not reply, and after consulting with the company’s solicitors H.F. Rubinstein wrote a letter to Marks & Spencer ’s Legal Department, dated 5th November, 1953

“We would point out, however, that, in its context the allusion in question is not derogatory of goods sold by your Company, of which, if we may say so, you have every reason to be proud. We suggest that if you will reconsider the passage quoted in your letter, in the light of the general atmosphere and characterization of Miss Pym’s novel, you will appreciate an ironical note underlying the dialogue and the implications of snobbishness betrayed by Miss Doggett, arising precisely out of the fact that the name of your firm is a ‘household word’ for goods remarkable no less for their inexpensiveness than for their high quality. . .

P.S. Since writing the above, we have received a letter from Miss Barbara Pym, in which she says;-

“I need hardly tell you that I certainly never intended anything derogatory to Marks & Spencer, for whom I have the greatest respect. The ironical thing is that I regularly buy and wear their clothes and think them excellent!”

In his letter to the solicitor, Howard phrased this sentiment a little different:  “I suggest that it could be argued that the passage is in no way intended to be derogatory of the goods sold by Messrs. Marks & Spencer, which, however, are notoriously inexpensive and that furthermore, the business is now so well-known as to have become a household word.”

The matter went on for a while, and in a letter to Pym Howard referred to Marks & Spencer  as "these tiresome people.”

 Finally Pym sent her editor an alternative sentence

“‘Oh, yes,’ Jane agreed; ‘when we become distressed we shan’t expect to receive anything very grand, considering the sort of clothes we’re wearing now!’.”

As a result of this unpleasant incident, Pym became extra careful with her references.  Two of the main topics in A Glass of Blessings are the clergy and the wine trade, and here is her description about choosing names:

“I can truthfully say that I have been most careful to check as far as possible, I have not used names belonging to real people. I have looked up all the clergy in the latest Crockford and have also consulted the London telephone directory for their names and those of other characters. I have even (today) consulted the directories of London and Oporto to make sure that one character (whose parents were in the wine trade) has no counterpart in reality. I am not sure that I have actually written anything that could be considered as a libel about anybody, even supposing that the name did have the bad luck to coincide with a real one, but I can assure that I have been very careful with the names.”

“As to ‘giving offenses’. . . I shall be very careful in going through the proofs, but I cannot at that moment remember anything that might offend anybody. I have no wish to get involved in any unpleasantness myself. I haven’t forgotten the worry over Jane and Prudence and my unfortunate reference to Marks and Spencer, so completely innocent on my part.”


4 Comment count
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Why get all steamed up?

I can't believe that Marks & Spencer got away with intimidating Barbara Pym. In the thoroughly vivid but non-hostile way you describe it, Orna, it seems Barbara was stating an opinion that was based on a true observation that the department store should have been thankful for instead of getting all steamed up.

In England, perhaps, but certainly not over here in America. Or am I wrong again?

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In England Perhaps

Thank you dear William for writing. I hope that you are right about America, but i observe that litigation is a national hobby in the US. In my opinion  Marks and Spencer was correct in spotting an insult. However, Barbara Pym's comment was only an inconsequential reminder of an overall snobbish attitude of certain classes to what Marks and Spencer, among others,    symbolized.  But, as barbara Pym indicated in her letter, it was only a matter of time and even those classes started shopping in Marks and Spencer.

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Fancy writing something, an

Fancy writing something, an opinion, and landing into so much unpleasantness.  I am surprised M & S made an issue out of it.  After all, it's the character – not the author – expressing this opinion.

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Dear Katia, thank you for

Dear Katia, thank you for writing. BP herself had collected similar anecdotes of trivial upleasantness and eventually they found their places in her novels. I have a feeling that she kept her sense of humor about this incident.