8 July 2013

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

Barbara Pym's Excellent Women depicts a world that revolves around spinsters, Anglo-Catholic rituals, anthropologists, church jumble sales, correct behaviour, suitable dress, bathroom sharing, and above all tea. As the above sentence may suggest, externally this is a world that has in some respects gone or is disappearing, one in which the church was all-important as a social focus and moral compass, when people had a 'Christian' name as opposed to a first or forename, when pubs were called 'public houses', when people frequently popped in to visit acquaintances and friends without prior arrangement – before the ubiquity of the telephone as a nervous tic, before the cultural anaesthesia of television.
Mildred Lathbury, a thirtyish spinster who works part time for the Society for the Care of Gentlewomen, is the protagonist and narrator. Her non-working life is wrapped up in church acivities, although the arrival of the anthropologist Helena Napier and her husband Rockingham, neither of whom are churchgoers and both of whom are very extroverted, soon bring a little colour to Mildred's existence. But perhaps this isn't what she really needs.

Mildred doesn't seem romantically interested in Father Julian Malory, nor in a man with whom she occasionally has lunch: William Caldicote, the priggish brother of her friend Dora. In fact she seems more interested in Rocky, who is of course unavailable because married. And here we perhaps have the crux of the issue: that Mildred may think about marriage from afar, but really isn't interested in it becoming a reality. Like Lolly Willowes in the first half of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel of the same name, Mildred prefers to live life by proxy. As William tells her:

'We, my dear Mildred, are the observers of life.' In fact they do socially (or maybe more exactly, virtually) what Helena and her colleague Everard Bone do professionally.

Mildred herself says:

'I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people's. [...] [P]erhaps I really enjoyed other people's lives more than my own.'
Mildred tells Dora – also a spinster – that there's no one she wants to marry, and Dora replies that she doesn't know anyone either 'at the moment', an expression that the narrator quietly picks up on and considers:
'It was a kind of fiction that we had always kept up, this not knowing anyone at the moment that we wanted to marry, as if there had been in the past and would be in the future.'

There certainly are moments of strong drama in the novel, such as Helena walking out on Rocky, or the young widow Alegra breaking off her engagement to Julian, but usually the actions are far more subtle, very understated, although at the same time sometimes apparently minor things (such as a teapot) carry great weight. When for instance Mildred asks Miss Stratham if they need a cup of tea, she interprets the effect of her question on her involving pain, puzzlement, distress, almost anger:

'It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.'

Such a sentence – evidently self-parody – comforted me in the knowledge that Mildred was capable of laughing at herself to such a degree: this is almost absurdist territory. And I can see why Anne Tyler identifies with Pym's work, saying that she 'reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life'. I can't wait to read more Pym novels.


Hye said...


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, except that it is Mildred, not Muriel, Lathbury.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank you for both the compliment and the correction: all offending Muriels have now been changed to Mildreds.