Muchos gracias to the worthy readers out there who tut-tutted at my comments that I wasn’t that fussed by Barbara Pym after reading Jane and Prudence and urged me to read Excellent Women before I condemned her to the ‘not my cup of tea’ category. I throw my hands up and say – you were right, and I was wrong! To think I nearly resolved to never read a Pym again and would have missed out on this reading joy…I cannot bear the thought of it. Barbara Pym is now my new favourite writer and I want to track down all of her novels. Excellent Women is truly magnificent. You must read it!!
Through the eyes of intelligent, witty and much put upon self-declared spinster Mildred Lathbury, Pym brilliantly exposes the hilarity and poignancy of our everyday lives. Mildred is an orphaned clergyman’s daughter in her very early thirties, living in a flat with a shared bathroom in a down at heel London neighbourhood that is probably meant to be in the vicinity of Victoria station. It is the early 1950s, and Mildred lives off a small annuity left to her by her father, while working in the mornings at the Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund and spending the rest of her time helping with the parochial duties of the local High Anglican church, which is led by her friend Father Malory. Mildred is an ‘Excellent Woman’ – the type who is always making tea, dispensing sympathy and being calm in a crisis. She is on the periphery of everyone’s lives – necessary to no one, as she herself observes – and yet this periphery existence in other’s lives is really the only thing that gives her own life meaning. This all sounds quite depressing, and it would be in the hands of a less deft writer, but Mildred’s wry acceptance of her position is what makes her such a successful heroine. She is, as she points out in the early pages, no Jane Eyre – ‘Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person’ – there will be no romantic happy ending, no melodramatics, no real change – Mildred’s life will always carry on in much the same vein, and it is how Mildred finds meaning and happiness in her humdrum existence that makes Excellent Women so wonderfully charming.
As the novel opens, Mildred is awaiting the arrival of new neighbours. The downstairs flat – with which she shares a bathroom – has been taken by the Napiers, a glamorous couple who married hastily during the war. Mildred finds herself rather intimidated upon meeting Helena Napier, a pretty and dashingly dressed blonde who turns out to be an anthropologist and rather useless at domestic tasks. Her husband, the unfeasibly named Rockingham, is in Italy serving as an Admiral’s aide, and is due to come home within the next few weeks. Mildred soon creates an impression of him, fuelled by Helena’s observation that he has had nothing to do except be kind to Wrens in unflattering uniforms at social events. When ‘Rocky’ does arrive, Mildred’s impression is proved right; he is charming, handsome and knows just how to make a plain Jane feel flattered. The Napiers soon draw Mildred into their lives, each using her to confide their marital problems and expecting her to provide tea and sympathy at a moment’s notice. Before she knows what is happening, Mildred is attending lectures at the Learned Anthropological Society and drinking beer in the local pub with Rocky Napier and Helena’s love interest, a fellow anthropologist by the deliciously appropriate name of Everard Bone. If this wasn’t bad enough, Father Malory takes up with the newly arrived and far too well dressed young widow Allegra Gray, and all the other ‘Excellent Women’ of the parish are up in arms as they wanted Mildred and Father Malory to marry. Used, pitied and depended upon by others, none of whom seem to bother about her own feelings or interests, Mildred chronicles her life with good humour and plenty of self deprecation, but she really comes into her own when both the Napiers and Father Malory run into romantic difficulties, and she is called upon to intervene…
Pym really is excellent at drawing out the gentle humour and pathos that is inherent in all of our lives. The guilty pleasure in buying yourself flowers; the depressing quality of returning home alone to nothing in the fridge and the laughter of your happier, more successful at life neighbours echoing through the wall; the moment of awkwardness when you run out of small talk at a party; the comfort of a cup of tea after a long day – it’s all here, and all described absolutely perfectly. Life can often fall short of the mark, and seem to become a series of small disappointments; so few of us achieve what we dreamed of or experience the heights of passion novels promise, and it is how we cope with this reality that Pym captures so astutely. Mildred is compelling as a character not because she is superbly clever, or successful, or beautiful, or glamorous, or witty – it is simply because she is so reassuringly normal. She leads a small life, with small pleasures and small disappointments. At times this is enough and Mildred can genuinely say that she is happy and desires nothing more, and at other times, she does have sobering reflections on how insignificant her life is and whether she could have tried harder to achieve the fullness she sees other people enjoying. I’m sure we can all relate to such feelings of fleeting regret and sadness, yet Excellent Women never descends into melancholy; life goes on, and the overall impression that Pym gives is that there are always compensations enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. Quite.
The joy of Pym’s writing is in her terrific wit, and her brilliantly sharp observations of the tiny details that so completely form the whole of a personality, event, or room. It was pure pleasure to read this, and I really didn’t want it to end. Mildred is such an endearing character; a 1950s Bridget Jones (without the wanton sex with Hugh Grant-esque cads) in the sense that she is a bit of a failure at life and knows it, and she articulates so many of the thoughts I have on a daily basis (especially about the patronisation of single women by smug-coupled-women that is absolutely infuriating) that I couldn’t help but laugh and think that we would probably be good friends in real life. The only aspect of the novel that I did find slightly upsetting was the fact that Mildred is 31 and already a pitied spinster and ‘set in her ways’ – was it really like this for single women over 25 in the 50’s?! If so, thank goodness I was born thirty odd years later – otherwise I might as well give up and get myself a cat now!!!