Recommended Reading: Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

photo (9)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.

Classics Club Spin # 7

Classics Club Spin #5 — which landed me with Great Expectations — was, to my surprise, a great success, and I liked reading The Iliad for Spin #6, so I’m throwing my hat into the ring again. Same list, just swapped in a new number 1.

Here’s my (randomly chosen) list, from my larger List o’ 51, for the Wheel of Fortune to choose from on Monday:

  1. Homer, The Odyssey
  2. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  3. Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey
  4. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  5. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
  6. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
  7. Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
  8. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  9. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
  10. Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
  11. Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
  12. Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
  13. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
  14. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  15. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea
  16. James Baldwin, Another Country
  17. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
  18. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
  19. Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
  20. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Wish me luck!

What Larks!: Dickens Re-evaluated

My fourteen-year-old self is going to think I’m Madame DeFarge. And not just because I learned how to knit a few years ago. No, it’s more the face-of-evil-betrayal thing.

I liked Great Expectations.

Horror of horrors: it appears that Mr. Dickens and I have come to an understanding.

I last read Great Expectations in the ninth grade — fifteen years ago, give or take. The following photo (64)year brought A Tale of Two Cities, which I will never read again thanks to truly irritating Lucie Mannette and her golden thread, and then I had a long break from Dickens until Hard Times popped up in a graduate seminar six or seven years ago, a break punctuated only by sporadic forays into David Copperfield.

Before this reading of Great Expectations, my major Dickensian complaints consisted of: Dickens’s long-windedness, his lack of subtlety, the tidy way that characters prove related to one another. Seriously. It felt like reading a nineteenth-century version of Crash sometimes.

Honestly, I put Great Expectations on my Classics Club list not from any noble intention to re-evaluate my own notoriously long-lived literary grudges (see: Steinbeck, Faulkner), but because at the time I thought I might like to read Havisham (still haven’t gotten around to it), and I like to read literary reimaginings with the original text firmly in mind. (Why I wanted to read Havisham is a story for another post.) When I decided was peer pressured into participating into the Classics Club Spin selection, I popped Great Expectations onto the spin list in position number 20, dead last, never thinking for a moment that it would really be picked.

I suppose I’ll be taking 5% chances more seriously from now on.

Great Expectations is Dickens’s penultimate completed novel, and though my edition clocks in at 484 pages (excluding notes and introduction), it’s one of the shortest of Dickens’s novels (which may halfway explain my change of heart). Unrequited love, the pursuit of wealth and status, the plight of the poor, and the nature of guilt are themes traced through the novel.

On the bleak marshes of Kent, Pip, a young orphan, has no expectations at all when the novel begins, except perhaps a slap upside the head from his sister, or a kind word from her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery (the pair are raising him). A chance encounter with a runaway convict causes Pip no end of fright and guilt, until those emotions are eventually crowded out by his love for and anxiety over Estella, the cold and contemptuous ward of the ghastly Ms. Havisham. Notified one day that a mysterious benefactor wishes Pip to become a gentleman, Pip leaves his home, Joe, and Estella behind, setting out for London and the issuance of his “great expectations.” Once there, however, the new wealth that confers upon Pip the status of gentleman also separates him from the people he loves, and, often, the best parts of himself. Great Expectations is largely concerned with the forces, both internal and external, that shape Pip’s character.

The novel’s narration is an older (and perhaps wiser) Pip, who looks on his childhood self’s foibles and his adolescent self’s willful errors with an uncompromisingly honest eye. His narration is wry, emotional, often funny. Pip meets a typical cast of Dickensian characters on his road: Jagger, the unscrupulous, clever, perpetually hand-washing lawyer; Joe, the gentle blacksmith, unfailingly tender-hearted, too convinced of his own unworthiness to correct Pip’s faults; Mr. Wopsle, the ridiculous cleric-turned-actor; Miss Havisham, withering and decaying in her own bitter memories.

And Wemmick, my favorite character in the novel. Wemmick is, I think, Dickens’s embodiment of modernity and practicality. While tender-hearted and thoughtful at home, caring for his deaf father (“The Aged Parent”) and sneaking his arm around proper Miss Skiffins’s waist, Wemmick transforms into an entirely different creature at Jaggers’s office, where he works as a clerk. He remonstrates with clients, ignores their tears, and carries out his duties without any regard to the suffering around him. It’s as if he shuts down his emotions as a form of self-preservation; otherwise, how could he bear what he sees every day? I suspect that this is Dickens’s commentary on the kind of person one must become to survive in — though not change — the modern world.

I know I didn’t appreciate Wemmick fifteen years ago because he came as a total surprise to me. What I also failed to see as a fourteen-year-old was Dickens’s marvelous sense of humor — abundantly evident in caricature studies, if you will, but here particularly in bleak, black humor. The novel’s second paragraph, after Pip explains the origin of his name in the first, is an extended joke. Pip explains how he derived a sense of his parents’ characters and his siblings’ physical attitudes from their tombstones:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

The tragic death of five infant boys transmuted into the image of children born with trousers on, relaxed and jaunty — how strange, how macabre, how childishly innocent!

Take, then, the next paragraph:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Pip introduces us to his child-self at the moment of self-realization, at the moment when he places himself within the context of his surroundings. And we learn what remains, for most of the novel, Pip’s defining characteristic: fearfulness. As a child, Pip fears his sister and her abuse, fears for his own safety once he’s met the convict, fears Estella’s coldness, fears becoming trapped in his provincial town with a respectable profession. Later he fears what people will think of him if acts a certain way; he even fears the boy he hires to be his valet. And of course he fears losing Estella, and fears that his convict will not forget him.

Though Pip-the-narrator never excuses his own (sometimes deplorable) behavior, in the background Dickens always seems to be saying, “consider the circumstances!”; take, for example, the paragraph I have just cited. Dickens emphasizes that Pip’s parents and brothers are dead; the churchyard overgrown with nettles suggests that the church (or religion) will be of little help to Pip (and indeed religion plays little role in the story); and the bleakness of the physical environment suggests that even nature will not be a comfort to Pip. Great Expectations provoked more marginalia for me than any other book this year — just look at the layering of adjectives that describe Pip’s surroundings: raw, bleak, overgrown, dark, flat, low, leaden, distant, savage. A fearsome environment for a “small bundle of shivers.”

Here’s part of Dickens’s description of the convict: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.” Textbook “good” writing — all action verbs — but the convict is the object of the actions; all these things have happened to him. What wonder then that he wants to become a man of action, to make things happen himself? What wonder then that he acts savagely to instill fear in a mere child?

(The characters for whom Dickens reserves real contempt are those who lack circumstances dire enough to mitigate their behavior: the second convict, Pip’s sister, the pompous bully Pumblechook, Herbert’s non-maternal mother.)

I’ve rambled on and only covered the first two pages of the novel — as you might imagine, the rest provoked plenty of commentary in the margins. I couldn’t help but think, as I read, that I must be missing things that would be obvious to people who specialize in Victorian literature (hi, Joanna!), people I’ve regarded with incredulity for years because they make a regular habit of reading Dickens. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to remake Wemmick’s acquaintance, and Joe Gargery’s, and I plan on reading Great Expectations again.

But don’t count on me reading Tale of Two Cities anytime soon.

A final aside, Dear Readers, for those who’ve read Milton and those who are considering the plunge: here are the last lines of Volume I, as Pip is about to embark upon his “great expectations”:

We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.

Compare these passages, from Paradise Lost, Book XII:

from the other hill
To their fixed station all in bright array
The cherubim descended, on the ground
Gliding meteorous as evening mist
Ris’n from a river o’er the marish glides
And gathers ground fast at the laborer’s heel
Homeward returning.


The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way

See what Dickens did there? Pip may be off to find his great expectations, but Paradise is behind him. And then, we must ask, what kind of paradise was it?