Checking back on my reaction to Pym’s Quartet in Autumn shows that I was sufficiently impressed to buy myself a copy of Excellent Women to read shortly thereafter. <clears throat> 5 and a half years later, prompted by Barbara Pym Reading Week and here I am.
The book takes us back to London in the early 1950’s – evidence of the war still abundant, particularly in the shabbiness of London district, Pimlico, and the bombed-out church that is the centre of the spinster, Mildred Lathbury’s life. Mildred is an excellent woman, single, devout and happy to help with fundraising through jumble sales and church bazaars. She is also – as she takes some pains to point out – not like other famous literary spinsters, Jane Eyre and Anne Elliot. This doesn’t refer to her looks or age because like them she is rather plain and let’s say past the first flush of youth. No, she is happy in her singleness and her limited but protected life
… which is proceeding as it should until her equilibrium is upset by the vicar getting engaged to the glamorous widow Allegra Gray and married couple, Helena and Rockingham Malory moving into the flat below. Suddenly there is disorder and chaos in Milldred’s life as she finds herself cast into the role of confidante. Allegra causing all kinds of upset between the vicar and his spinster sister, Mildred’s best friend, Winifred. The Malorys’ marriage is strained and on the verge of breakup due to the wife’s independent streak and love of the unfortunately named, Everard Bone. The husband’s charming flirtatious nature doesn’t help either. Mildred with no experience of life finds herself cast into the role of counsellor. How does she deals with these crises? In thoroughly British fashion.
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.
She offers tea and sympathy, taking a more active role only when prevailed upon to do so. Yet there is much prevailing of Mildred in these pages. The assumption being that because she is unmarried and alone (no parents, no siblings either), she has plenty of time to be at everyone’s beck and call. And given that assertiveness probably wasn’t even n the dictionary in the 1950’s, she rarely says no and allows herself to be putout more often than not. In so, doing, however, she proves herself a rather astute observer of those around her, her insights far superior to those of the learned members of the anthropologist society that Helena and Everard belong to.
Not that Mildred is aware of that. She’s also blind apropos what others think of her. The question is does she realise what Everard Bone is up to? The ending is left open but I suspect the off-the-page ending isforeshadowed by the opening sentence:
The conventional romantic novel ends with marriage.
Pym’s playing with the form, subverting readerly expectations and inverting Austenesque tropes. Is Mildred a reluctant busybody (Emma)? I see an awful lot of Darcy in Everard. Sly satirical wit on every page and I enjoyed the outrage caused by seemingly innocuous deviations from normal, expected behaviour. But most of all, I loved the change in Mildred brought on by the drama of these few months and the prospect of what she calls a full life. Just goes to show – it’s never too late to feature in a Bildungsroman.