A few days ago, one of my very best friends and I talked a little about Philip Larkin, the dean of depressed and depressing (though wonderful) twentieth century poets. While I’ll be happy to revisit Larkin soon, the conversation reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to review for months: Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women.
You see, Barbara Pym wrote a string of successful novels during the 1950s and early 1960s, including Excellent Women (1952), and then her career came to a standstill. Her publisher, and others, rejected all her manuscripts, declaring them too old-fashioned.
In 1977, however, Philip Larkin and David Cecil (a prominent historian) named her the most underrated writer of the century, and she catapulted back into broader recognition.
It’s recognition I didn’t share, I regret to say; I’d never heard of Barbara Pym until I was browsing through Classics Club lists in 2013 as I put together my own. She kept popping up, and then I found a copy of Excellent Women at a used bookstore in western Massachusetts, and that is the long and short story of how I came to read it.
Set in what was then contemporary post-war London, Excellent Women is the tale of Mildred Lathbury (excellent name, isn’t it?), an unmarried woman living in a flat. Like other “excellent women,” she keeps an eye on her neighbors and the local curate, and the affairs of her small social circle take up much of her time.
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (3)
If you’re hearing bells that peal “Jane Austen” now, I’m not surprised; this novel is full of subtle and barbed social commentary, its heroine an Elinor Dashwood figure with no Edward Ferrars on the horizon, and no Marianne to fuss over.
The plot, which involves the disintegrating marriage of a neighboring anthropologist and her rakish husband, a highly suspicious widow with her sights set on a vicar, jumble sales, unsuitable matches, and many cups of tea, is really not so important as the characters and Mildred’s observations, which are simply a treat to read. Here are some of my favorites:
‘Now Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. (44)
On the bus I began thinking that William had been right and I was annoyed to have to admit it. Mimosa did lose its freshness too quickly to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people’s. (76)
I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion. (205)
And finally, of excellent women themselves, Mildred says,
‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’
‘Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?’
‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’
One gets the feeling that Mildred was fond of Jane Austen.
By the way, I suspect that a book that’s coming out later this spring (I haven’t read it) would be very interesting to read alongside Excellent Women. It’s called Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Katie Bolick.
I’d certainly like to read another of Barbara Pym’s novels, and I’d be delighted if you could recommend one to me.