As they write about their surroundings, writers are bound to be critical, to a certain degree, of their material. Lately researchers acknowledge, what every reader knows, that a work of fiction is a significant source of information about a given culture. Even the subjectivity of a work of fiction is used by scholars as a proof of different trends within that society.
We are all aware of the power of George Eliot’s Middlemarch which, in addition to being a brilliant work of art, is a momentous social and historical document. Eliot discusses numerous social issues, but even those topics which are less crucial to the plot and the characters, like the state of medicine at the time, and different practices in journalism and modes of documentation offer the researcher a bona fide account of life in rural England in the nineteenth century.
In 2001 in “Sociology and the Englishness of English Social Theory.” Social Theory. 2001. 19/1: 41–64 the sociologist Krishan Kumar argues that in England literary figures like Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, William Thackeray, and F. R. Leavis, among others, took the place of sociologists in writing about their cultures. He argues that literature (and history) was one of the disciplines that took the place of sociology in dealing with social and political issues.
Kumar names that type of writing “implicit sociology” (or concealed sociology). In the twentieth century Barbara Pym engages in implicit sociology. Hazel Holt, Pym’s editor and biographer trusts that one day Pym’s work will be a rich source for social historians (Holt 1990 and indeed in her novels of the 1950s (Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, Less Than Angels, A Glass of Blessings and No Fond Return of Love) we find criticism and commentary of the Church, women education, women’s employment, and the welfare state.
For Pym literature is not only an aesthetic production, but a vehicle for moral analysis and social commentary.Thus, the final product is a fictional representation of society that doubles as testimony and critique.
It seems that 1950s England with the new welfare state and the significant political and social reformsare is even farther today than the rural village of Middlemarch. Yet for the inquisitive cultural scholar Pym’s novels is an important source of information about that forgotten decade.