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.

Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

Checking Off My Classics Club List: The Big Sleep

Forget Brangelina. Forget Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The best on-screen/off-screen chemistry of all time goes to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Big Sleep

Seriously. Watch the first half-hour of To Have and Have Not (1944) and you’ll be floored when you hear Bacall deliver her first line (it was her first movie, at 19). Wow-za.  Plus, you can feel that you’re doing something literary, since the film is based (very loosely, I admit) on Hemingway’s novel of the same name, and the screenplay was co-written by William Faulkner. Yeah, THE Faulkner.

Anyway. I love all the Bogie & Bacall movies, but The Big Sleep (1946) is far and away my favorite. It’s dark, it’s scary, it’s engrossing. So naturally I put Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), his first novel, on my Classics Club list.

I knew the contours of the plot from the movie, but I was surprised just how much darker in tone the novel is.

Here’s the set-up:  A dying millionaire calls in private detective Philip Marlowe to investigate some “gambling” debts accrued by the younger of his two wild daughters, Carmen. Marlowe’s investigation spins outward to include men and women caught up in blackmail, pornography (the movie elides this one — thanks, Hollywood censors!), murder, gambling, and disappearances. Nobody’s innocent.

Marlowe’s a great character: a cynic trying to do the right thing, curious to a fault, more interested in solving a puzzle than preserving his personal safety. A perfect fit for Bogart. Marlowe narrates, and the prose matches his style — keenly observant, hard-boiled, thorough. Never, ever florid or sentimental.

There’s some squirm-inducing material from this vantage point, nearly seventy-five years later. Marlowe isn’t overly fond of women, for one thing. Carmen may be a psychotic, drug-addled brat, but slapping her around just seems wrong. And the novel brings up homosexuality (very well hidden in the movie), but only in the context of scorn (“queen” and “fairy” is standard language in the novel). Unpleasant, very unpleasant. Here’s a telling line: about a character who’s committed murder and who was another man’s lover: “He was afraid of the police, of course, being what he is” (110).  Homosexuality is clearly coded as deviance, as “other,” as part of the criminal underground that Marlowe finds himself caught up in.

These issues aside, it’s a great crime novel, great writing, and highly recommended.

Recommended Reading: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Yes, it’s another installment in Books Carolyn Is Utterly Embarrassed Not to Have Read by Now.

Image courtesy of Manostphoto/

Image courtesy of Manostphoto/

As a voracious reader and lover of sci-fi, it’s pretty amazing that Fahrenheit 451 has missed my to-read pile for so long. Maybe it’s because the contours of the story are so familiar; I felt going in as if I already knew the plot.

Something that startled me was the sheer number of technological advances that Bradbury saw coming in 1953 (because of his long career, I’d always assumed that Fahrenheit was a late 60s/ early 70s book — quite wrongly): wall-sized TV screens, in-ear headphones, drones. I wonder if Suzanne Collins was thinking of the Mechanical Hound when she created some of the monsters in The Hunger Games trilogy.

I’ll skip the plot summary, since you’ve probably got the gist of it, and instead highlight my favorite section: Montag’s meeting with Grayson and the other people of the book, who remind themselves, “we’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.” Grayson goes on to tell Montag how great works of literature are preserved: “Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell” (179; the grammar’s a little off, but I can’t tell if that’s Grayson’s overexcitement or a faulty edition at work). I found the work of memory, the instinct to preserve ideas and language, deeply moving.

I wonder, though, if regarding oneself as merely a dust jacket for a book is entirely admirable. Certainly there’s a sense embedded in this idea of taking a larger, longer perspective (I’m reminded of Carl Sagan and the blue dot, or Rick’s speech at the end of Casablanca), a way of realizing our individual insignificance over the span of time. On the other hand, one person with a great deal of insight, or fortitude, or kindness, can change the world for the better. But I suppose you do need the world.

Because I Love a Bandwagon: The Classics Club

One of my goals for this fall (and winter, because, really, let’s not kid ourselves) is to make a list of my (ridiculous number of) books and try to put a schedule together to read the unread ones.

So naturally, I’m sidetracking myself by joining the Classics Club. And I love a full bandwagon, so maybe you could join too?

Here’s the idea: Make a list of at least fifty classic books you’d like to read, and then commit to reading them in five years, at most. More than fifty books? Great! Your classics are all sci-fi/nineteenth-century/YA/poetry? Go right ahead and list them (but seriously. YA? Really?).

My list, as you’ll see, is rather a smorgasbord. I’m trying to fill gaps in my education (and, you know, try to stomach a few things from the eighteenth century) and refresh my memory and remedy my shocking lack of under-the-belt sci-fi classics.  You’ll also notice that there’s nary a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century work to be found on my list, because I spent five years in grad school chilling with my pals Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, Middleton, Cavendish, Milton, Marvell, Jonson, and Lanyer. I feel like we can stay in touch via Facebook for at least a few more years.

Start Date: September 13, 2013

End Date: September 12, 2018

Here’s my list o’ 51. I did not alphabetize it. Please still hang out with me.

Well Before the Eighteenth Century

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey 

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji


18th Century 

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe


19th Century 

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey

Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

George Sand, Indiana

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

To Revisit:

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (last read 2008)

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (last read 1998)

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (last read 2010ish)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (last read 2000 or 2001)


20th Century 

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels

Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

Ursula Leguin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood

Diana Gabaldon, Outlander

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea

James Baldwin, Another Country

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

To revisit:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (last read sometime in the late ’90s)

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (last read sometime in the early aughts)

So, what did I miss? What would you have added? Are you already a member? How’s it going?