by Barbara Pym, 1952
published by Plume
source: my shelves
motivation for reading: Virago Reading Week and The TBR Dare
In a nutshell:
Mildred Lathbury, clergyman's daughter, thirty-something spinster in 1950's England, and 'excellent woman' often taken for granted, finds herself in the middle of her new neighbors marital crisis, as well as a church upheaval.
The front cover says "Written with the wit and style if a twentieth-century Jane Austen" and I can't help but agree. Excellent Women, told in the first person by Mildred Lathbury, seems to suggest this comparison from the opening page:
"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who loves alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say there is no hope for her."Quartet in Autumn is my only previous experience with Pym, but I was again treated to a wonderfully English-feeling novel. The effects of the war are still visible - a badly bombed church is only half-usable, housing shortages remain and (hard for me to imagine from my 21st century comfort) total strangers are required to share bathrooms. Meat supply seems scarce and tea-drinking occurs every few pages.
Mildred is an extremely perceptive woman, and much of her life is based on appropriateness, capability, and manners. It's a rather quiet life caring for 'gentlewomen' in the morning, attending various church services, and taking part in nearly all day-to-day church activities. Life takes an interesting turn as Mildred becomes involved in the lives, and marital crisis, of her glamorous new neighbors, the Napiers. Helena is a beautiful anthropologist lacking domestic skills, while Rockingham, or 'Rocky', is a handsome, engaging officer recently returned from Italy. Through the Napiers, Mildred is also introduced to the unmarried Everard Bone, Helen's research partner.
Church life is shaken up when Allegra Gray, a stylish clergyman's widow, takes a room at the vicarage where (single) Father Julian Malory presides while being looked after by his sister Winifred (also an 'excellent' woman). Mildred's character unfolds as she interacts with all these people.
Although there are some very funny moments, the poignant episodes seemed to stand out, leaving me with a overall bittersweet feeling.
A few examples:
'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. (page 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 to quick to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people's. (page 76)
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. 'I can't change now. I'm afraid it's too late.' I felt it would not sound very convincing if I said that I hadn't really wanted to marry Julian Malory. I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could. (page 170)
So did he remember me like that after all - a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one. (page 222)After turning the last page, I wanted nothing more than to begin another Barbara Pym novel.
Bottom line: A wonderfully perceptive English novel by an author I will be reading much more of... especially recommended to those who enjoy quiet, character-driven novels.