Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: Excellent Women


You’ve got to be careful with Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) because it’s one of those un-put-downable books that holds a risk of making you severely antisocial, your only social interaction being the embarrassed explanations that inevitably follow loud outbursts of laughter.  I started this book on the drive over to my husband’s aunt’s house; we went to visit them for a few days after Christmas.  Once there, I found it remarkably hard to concentrate my attention on visiting, because every time there was a lull in conversation, I wanted to get back to my book.  In retrospect, it probably should have stayed in the car, to help me resist temptation!

Mildred Lathbury is one of those “excellent women,” an unmarried spinster expected to observe and meddle in the lives of her friends and neighbors (as indeed she does, to the betterment of her London community).  Mildred is one of the most capable women I’ve ever come across, and I think that if she ever found a man she wanted, she’d be able to snag him as a husband immediately, despite Mildred’s occasionally self-deprecating comments such as this: “It was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up” (170).  I love how Mildred’s first response when comforting someone is always to make a cup of tea, and then how she worries that she’s becoming branded as the person who always makes cups of tea.

The wit and charm of Pym’s social satire earned her the distinction of being called a twentieth-century Jane Austen (according to the blurb on the front cover).  The book was touching, hugely engaging, and often uproariously funny, and with its focus on Anglicanism and anthropology, seemed crafted just for me!

Mildred’s life revolves around the life of the church.  As she put it, “It is only a question of choosing one’s parish and fitting into it…” (11).  She attends Office services almost every day, and most of her friends are a part of her church community, including the vicar and his sister, and many of the women who volunteer on church committees.  The book is full of church jokes, which as an Anglican I found absolutely delightful.  Specifically, I’m Anglo-Catholic, so this particular passage made me about die laughing from its absolute rightness:

We moved from place to place with reverence and admiration while our guide explained the history and meaning of this or that in a kind patient voice.

“I don’t suppose any of you are Catholics,” he said smoothly, “so you may not understand about Our Lady.”

I saw the Anglo-Catholic ladies gather more closely together, as if to distinguish themselves from the rest of the group.  They seemed to be whispering indignantly among themselves and one looked almost as if she were about to protest.  But in the end, perhaps remembering their manners or the difficulty of arguing with a Roman, they calmed down and listened patiently with the rest of us.  (196)

When it comes to the anthropology side of the book, Mildred’s new neighbor is an anthropologist and thus Mildred begins her association with a few anthropologists, even attending the reading of her neighbor’s anthropology conference paper.  And yet, she never really understands anthropology or anthropologists at all!  This kind of tangential association, which leaves one able to talk seemingly intelligently about the subject without ever really having any firm grasp, is just what I have after several years of dating and then marrying a man with a degree in anthropology!

My favorite characteristic of the book is its realism.  In the end, Mildred has been involved in a lot of drama, but not very much has actually happened to her.  The novel outlines her daily life.  She buys flowers and laments the purchase a day later when the flowers begin to wilt.  She runs into acquaintances unexpectedly and struggles through awkward conversation.  And there is a lot of talk of brewing and drinking tea!  Perhaps the freshest and most unexpected aspect of Pym’s writing is her rejection of Chekhov’s law, which states that anything brought into a story early must become important later on.  Real life isn’t like that, and Excellent Women isn’t either.  Topics are brought up in conversation or experience that are unexplained and then left – Mrs. Jessop for one.  Who is this woman, and why should she ring to apologize to Mrs. Bone?  It’s a mystery to Mildred and it’s so refreshing that Pym left it a mystery to readers.  Excellent Women is a mere snapshot of a life that keeps on living after the book is finished.

My first introduction to Barbara Pym was an unqualified success!  I highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read it, and will eagerly anticipate reading more of her novels – though that will have to wait until I’m back to reading from the library.  Does anyone have a suggestion as to which of her many books I should read next?

9 comments:

  1. So glad you like Pym, but not at all surprised! I love ALL her books and have read them multiple times, but strongly recommend either A Glass of Blessings or The Sweet Dove Died as your next. (TSDD is one of her two "serious" novels, the other being Quartet in Autumn. While it's true that both are indeed more somber than the others, there is still plenty of Pymsian humor in both.) Her first, Some Tame Gazelle, is loosely based on herself and her sister and is among my top five favorite Pyms. Some people don't much like Jane and Prudence, but I like it quite a lot. And I have a special, personal fondness for No Return of Love, as I can well identify with the main character's comical, fan-like obsession with one man. Happy reading!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All of those sound marvelous; I won't know where to start! My local used bookstore had most of these and I seriously considered picking them up...but my poor husband has put up with a lot of books entering the house this season, so I figured I'd wait a bit before buying more...

      Delete
  2. By the way, we do encounter Mildred again in a later novel - that's one of the fun things about Pym; she likes to recycle characters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent! I can't wait to see where Mildred ends up - does she finally marry the vicar??

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Which book, which book? Inquiring minds need to know! :-)

      Delete
    2. You know, I don't remember; I'll have to check. Get back to you!

      Delete
    3. Mildred is talked about in Jane and Prudence, and it's then that we learn she married Everard Bone. Come to think of it, I don't think she makes an actual appearance anywhere else in Pym's novels, but I seem to remember Everard coming back somewhere. Esther Clovis turns up in several books, along with other anthropologist types, and clergymen.

      Delete
    4. Saw that coming! Well, kinda-sorta. I didn't think she would live up to her full potential if she married the vicar, but I suspected her immediate society might push her in that direction. I'll have to find a copy of Jane and Prudence - thanks!

      Delete