Excellent Women (Novel) by Barbara Pym, 1952
A person tries to keep an open mind about all the new stuff coming along. You remind yourself that discoveries can be exciting.
But, every once in a while, you need to return to a beloved author because you know that author’s good.
The big surprise, in the case of this novel by Barbara Pym, is that it’s so damned good. I remembered that
I’d liked it but it turns out now to be amazing. Has it possibly gotten better with age? Or has my appreciation of good
writing become keener? This book turns out to be one of the best ever. Every page, practically, teems with delightful instances
of the art of fine writing.
To her fans, the general outlines of Ms Pym’s life are well known. She had published several of her delightful novels
when, in 1963, her publisher dropped her. Her work languished for several years without being published again. Then, an article
in the Times Literary Supplement quoted both Philip Larkin and Lord Davis Cecil as saying that they considered Ms Pym
one of the most under-appreciated novelists of the day. Bingo! Quartet in Autumn (reviewed below) was taken up by another
publisher in 1977 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize (as it was then known).
It puzzles me that Ms Pym, who died in 1980, isn’t better known and acclaimed today. Her Excellent Women,
published in 1952, deserves to stand alongside the best of Jane Austen’s novels. We have the delicious social commentary,
the sly wit, the outright comedy and the depth of feeling, not to mention the exquisitely clean and spare handling of the
English language. Maybe the only reason Ms Pym isn’t better known today is that we haven’t been treated to multiple
movie versions of her work. I can only assume that’s because her subjects and settings aren’t as glamorous as
Ms. Austen’s. No ballrooms and stately manors and Empire waistlines here; no lords and ladies. Instead, we have ordinary
people living in modest circumstances, leading fairly quiet lives.
In Excellent Women, for instance, the heroine and narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is a single woman, just over thirty,
who has a humble office job. (Ms Pym worked as an editor for an academic magazine.) Most of her free time is taken up with
volunteer work in her High Church Anglican parish, often in the company of her best friends, the vicar and his unmarried sister.
The momentum of the story arrives in the form of a somewhat racy young couple who move into the flat downstairs from Mildred’s.
Her developing friendship with them shakes up her existence – albeit in very under-stated ways.
That doesn’t, by any means, lead to dull, monotonous writing. This, from the first page of Excellent Women,
stands up just as well as the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice:
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives 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
that there is no hope for her.
As in Ms. Austen’s work, many of the sharpest observations have to do with marriage. Someone mentions that widows
probably have the knack of catching a man, a skill that they’ve picked up much the way a person masters the art of "mending
a fuse". At one point, the brilliant insight occurs to Mildred that she has been doing far too much to help a certain eligible
bachelor and that it’s the helpless women who end up married. After hearing, at a school reunion, glowing reports of
everybody’s marriages, Mildred offers this thought: "I do not think we ever imagined the husbands to be quite so uninteresting
as they probably were." On a more wistful note, we get the following comment after Mildred and a girlfriend have shared the
information that neither of them has any marriageable man in her sights at the moment: "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."
Some of Ms Pym’s comments on marriage and romance are worthy of Oscar Wilde. This one sounds like Lady Bracknell:
"...I had an inexplicable distrust of widows, who seem to be of two distinct kinds, one of which may be dangerous." Also in
the Lady B mode, there’s this comment about a clergyman holding hands with a woman in the park: "It was just thoroughly
unsuitable, sitting there for everyone to see, not even on the hard iron chairs but lolling in deckchairs." Here, it
sounds like Ms Pym is channelling Cecily from The Importance of Being Earnest: "I always feel that one ought
to give men the opportunity for self-sacrifice; their natures are so much less noble than ours." Mildred, on finding that
she and a new acquaintance don’t much like each other, notes: "Still this was no doubt an interesting basis for social-intercourse...."
Doesn’t that sound like it comes directly from the mouth of the great Oscar himself?
Apart from the subjects of marriage and romance, the book is rich in observations about many aspects of human nature. Someone
is said to have smiled "in such a way that he could almost have meant it." Regarding a certain private catastrophe, we get
this wry truth-telling: "There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of
our better instincts, we long to know about them." Listening to a friend complain about some trivia, Mildred reflects that,
"...after all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little
useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction."
Much of Ms Pym’s perspicacity about human behaviour has to do with church people, particularly the committee women.
She mentions that they get very officious about their jobs at the annual church bazaar. When it comes to decorating the church
for Easter, there’s the crucial question of who calls the shots: a particular clergyman’s widow or another clergyman’s
sister? About one such quarrelsome session, Mildred tells us: "I suddenly felt very tired and thought how all over England,
and perhaps, indeed, anywhere where there was a church and a group of workers, these little frictions were going on."
Some of the best comic nosegays, so to speak, stem from these church doings. Mildred makes this comment about her consultation
with a friend over what to pay for a dress at a church jumble sale: "We discussed the matter gravely for some time..." Mildred
imagines how her parents, who practised a lower form of Anglicanism, would have reacted to some of the ritual at the church
she attends: "I am afraid my poor father and mother would not have approved at all and I could imagine my mother, her lips
pursed, shaking her head and breathing in a frightened whisper, ‘Incense.’" A certain gossip session among
the parish ladies causes a lapse in the conversation:
There was a short silence as is sometimes customary after speaking of the dead, though in this case the people referred
to might have been thought to have met with a fate worse than death, for they had left us and been received into the Church
It’s in Ms Pym’s handling of these church matters that one of the most remarkable aspects of Excellent Women
comes to light: from today’s perspective, the writing looks remarkably prescient. It is as though Ms Pym was foreshadowing
events that she could not possibly have known were about to happen. The move towards Ecumenism, for instance. At the jumble
sale in Mildred’s church, various parishoners are tossing around the outlandish possibility of attending the similar
event held by the Roman Catholic parish. Mildred has the temerity to suggest: "It’s rather nice to think of churches
being united through jumble sales....I wonder if the Methodists are having one too?" Even the vicar chimes in: "Churches united
through jumble sales?....Well, we might do worse."
Ms Pym seems to have had some premonition about another major development that came at about the same time as the Ecumenical
thrust – the women’s movement. Ms Pym is far from being a fully-fledged feminist. For the most part, it’s
expected that the men in her world will order for their women companions in restaurants, deciding for them what they’ll
eat and drink. It’s assumed that any gentleman will take a female companion’s arm on crossing the street. A man
can get away with saying, when asked what his wife thinks about something: "My good lady leaves the thinking to me." One of
the most striking illustrations of the pre-feminist mindset of those days is the comment, made by one of Mildred’s friends,
that a woman over thirty is beyond making any significant change in her status or lifestyle.
But questions about the roles of husbands and wives arise, even if they’re voiced ever so tentatively. Although Mildred,
for the most part, uncomplainingly takes up the domestic chores that men thrust on her from time to time, she challenges a
cleaning woman who grouses about a woman who left the cleaning to her husband: "You don’t think that men should help
with the housework?" Excellent Women, with its light, airy tone, shrinks from making any dogmatic proclamations on
the subject. At the heart of the book, though, there lurks some uneasiness about the question of a woman’s role vis
a vis a man. It comes through most poignantly in a scene where Mildred doesn’t even say anything. She’s listening
to a married couple discuss her future – Mildred’s – as if she weren’t present. They’re arguing
about what a "full" life should be for someone like Mildred. Her saying nothing, not even letting us in on her thoughts, makes
us feel how discomfiting the situation must be for her.
Finally, on the second last page of the book, Mildred confronts the issue head-on. Foreseeing the drudgery that a certain
male friend has in store for her, she asks: "Was any man worth this burden?" No ultra-feminist could put the essential question
more succinctly. Mildred answers it in her typically genteel way, not veering very far from the path that her culture and
her upbringing seem to have designated for her, but the fact of her having raised the question with herself shows that Ms
Pym definitely was sensitive to currents of thoughts that most novelists were oblivious to in the 1950s.
And yet, her attention to the details of daily life nails that era in England better than any sociological treatise. It’s
the post-war period, so we get Mildred referring to the olive oil that she’s hoarded for special occasions. About gobbling
up a friend’s jam when invited for tea, Mildred notes that she was apologizing "in a way one did in those days." Much
is made of the question of whether or not people should address each other by their first names. Mildred, in spite of her
characteristic kindliness, can’t help registering a slight shock when people start using her first name prematurely,
as it seems to her. The class status endemic to Britain in those days (and still?) looms large. Certain parish women obviously
consider themselves much superior to a cleaning woman in their midst.
Part of the fascination with Ms Pym’s writing comes from the realization that she knows exactly what she’s
producing and how it compares to some other works. At the outset, Mildred makes the point that, as a single woman and a first-person
narrator, she’s not at all like Jane Eyre. Although Ms Pym has written what could be called a conventional comedy, she
clearly is aware of other possibilities. For instance, she has Mildred thinking about writing a novel about a woman standing
at the kitchen sink for an hour. This may be a joke about "kitchen sink" literature in general but Ms Pym’s reference
to a "stream of consciousness" novel clearly shows that she’s thinking of Virginia Woolf’s work, specifically,
I should think, Mrs. Dalloway. During a restless night, Mildred browses through the church magazine, lingering without
much satisfaction, over a short piece of fiction about a minor tempest regarding the parish’s jumble sale. Is it possible
here that Ms Pym is poking a little fun at her own kind of writing – in which jumble sales tend to figure prominently?
Or, maybe she’s guessing that this reference will cause us to realize that she, Ms Pym, can make a jumble sale far more
interesting than any church paper could.
Mildred’s response to the dashing guy who has moved in downstairs recalls the tizzy of the women over the soldier
in Chekov’s Three Sisters. But some of Ms Pym’s deft strokes seem to anticipate kinds of literature yet
to come. A querulous old lady answers Mildred’s phone call with "Hello, hello, who is that?....If it’s Miss Jessop
I can only hope you are ringing up to apologise." That’s a foretaste of the comedy that will come from Muriel Spark.
A scene where various individuals congregate in Mildred’s flat at a moment of crisis looks like the kind of scenario
that will figure very prominently in the work of Iris Murdoch.
Another noteworthy aspect of Ms Pym’s writing is her narrative technique. For the most part, Mildred burbles along
in a straightforward first-person narration without any innovation on the genre. Even a touch of foreshadowing, along the
lines of "I did not then know to the extent I do now..." fits well within the norms. But Ms Pym frequently has Mildred making
asides to the reader that come almost as a shock, in that they seem to break the fictional spell. Early on, for instance,
Mildred notes that probably no anthropologist will read this writing of hers. Doesn’t that make us too conscious of
the writer as writer? On the contrary, I think it adds to her credibility.
As do several other touches. For example, Mildred will say that something’s so familiar that it doesn’t need
describing. Or that she has forgotten the details about some academic paper and that we can look it up in the archives if
we’re so inclined. Or, she’ll say that an argument that she overheard between two of her friends was too distressing
to write about. All these might seem like cop-outs on the part of a writer. After all, doesn’t a good writer re-create
events and dialogues for us? What’s with this dereliction of duty? Rather than diminishing the effect of the writing,
I find that it enhances the work's authenticity. This is exactly the way friends speak when telling us something –
they skip over details we don’t need to hear. In doing so, Mildred becomes all the more believable as someone whose
tale I’m listening to. Paradoxically, her leaving out some info, and acknowledging that she’s doing so, convinces
me that what she does relate must be the real deal.
To mention just a few more of the techniques in Excellent Women that we expect to find in all good literature:
- Scene-writing. Mildred is embroiled in a discussion with friends on a controversial subject. At first, she finds herself
lined up with character A against characters B and C. But suddenly, and to her bewilderment, it seems that she’s aligned
with B against A and C. I can imagine how well this would play on stage.
- Character portrayal. It’s noteworthy that Ms Pym creates male characters of such variety and plausibility. Is it
sexist of me to say that? Maybe not. We all know of many authors who can write excellent characters of their own sex but whose
attempts at describing members of the opposite sex tend to fall flat. But all Ms Pym’s men characters are lifelike.
There’s the dashing and somewhat dangerous neighbour, Rockingham, the cautious and genteel clergyman, Julian, and the
arrogant academic, Everard. For me, the most notable male character is Mildred’s friend William. Clearly, we’re
dealing here with someone who would be identified by any writer today as a gay man. Ms Pym has managed to let us know that
this is exactly who he is without having to say what would be unmentionable in a light-hearted comedy of the 1950s. This guy
has a cushy job that seems to amount to nothing. We get a beautiful touch of Ms Pym’s irony, when Mildred is parting
from him after a luncheon: "‘I must be keeping you from your work,’ I added, with no thought of irony until after
I had said it."
Excellent Women does have its flaws, minor though they be. Ms Pym, unfortunately, fell into the writerish mannerism
of her time, whereby the simple "to say," as referring to a speaker’s uttering lines of dialogue, is replaced by fancier
verbs. Hence, we get speeches tagged with verbs like "ventured," "burst out" and "snorted". (A writer as eminent as F. Scott
Fitzgerald was prone to this tendency.) There are also far too many references to someone’s giggling. But Ms Pym goes
a long way, in my estimation, towards redeeming herself for any stylistic slips, when she has Mildred expressing some regret
over the use of "commence" in the church paper when "begin" or "start" would have done quite nicely. Anybody who agrees with
me about that usage has a finely honed sense of style, in my opinion. (One shudders to think of what Ms Pym would have made
of "The Big Book" of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, with its persistent use of "commence" on all occasions.)
Marvellous though all the aforementioned virtues of the novel may be, Ms Pym’s greatest achievement in Excellent
Women is the creation of the character of Mildred. What keeps the novel floating and sustains our attention is the delightful
personality of Mildred, as conveyed in her distinctive voice.
One of her most striking characteristics would be her self-awareness, often salted with self-deprecating humour. To cite
just some of the many examples:
While taking a light-hearted approach to herself most of the time, Mildred does have her serious side. We can see that
she struggles at times to be the good person she feels she ought to be. Looking at a crowded cafeteria, she reflects on the
fact that one is supposed to love everybody, a task that she apparently doesn’t find easy. She makes a definite effort
to try to think well of a man who irritates her. She’ll even pat herself on the back for attempting to have a friendly
exchange with him. On the other hand, she’ll employ little psychological tricks to stop herself from thinking "too well"
of a man who isn’t romantically available to her. She has reached a stage in life where she realizes there’s no
point any longer in belittling her successful school mates or rejoicing over the less successful ones. When others are criticizing
people who might be considered her rivals, Mildred expresses remarkable fairness towards them. When a woman makes a self-justifying
remark about having "escaped" a dangerously attractive man, Mildred shrewdly asks herself: "But would we have escaped, any
of us, if we had been given the opportunity to do otherwise?"
If all this makes Mildred seem unbearably virtuous, let it be said that she doesn’t always succeed in her attempts
to take the high road. In a situation where she feels she has acted rudely, she allows, with regret, that "the worst side
of me" has been coming out lately. She feels downright irritated with herself for being the kind of woman who, when other
people have left a mess in the kitchen, goes in and cleans up – just as they expect she will. When somebody unexpectedly
takes her up on her routine offer to help out, she notes her ambivalence about following through. In a conversation with some
women about troubled marriages, she realizes that she’s pretending to an expertise on a subject about which she knows
nothing. After making somebody laugh with an unkind remark about someone else, Mildred tries to give the conversation a more
charitable turn – but that catty remark did get made. When a friend asks Mildred for a big favour, Mildred struggles
to produce a generous response: "The truth was....I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens [sic]
as the nobler language of our great hymn-writers put it." On another occasion, when someone thanks Mildred for having performed
a valuable service, she responds with the conventional "Oh, it was nothing." But she tells us she felt that "no other answer
could be given." We know, then, that her kindness did cost her something.
Our dear Mildred is not immune to the assaults of vanity. She catches herself being skeptical about a gift of flowers from
a gentleman caller: it looks to her as though he grabbed them from the garden at the last minute, rather than taking the trouble
to visit a florist. After accepting a dinner invitation from a man, it occurs to her that she may be the last person he asked.
"For some reason that I could not understand, for I believe I have always had a modest opinion of myself, I found this disturbing."
A man who has upsetting news tells Mildred that he wanted her to be "among the first to know". She notes that the word "among"
stings a little. She’s surprised to find herself speechless in a certain situation, because she had always prided herself
"on being able to make suitable conversation on all occasions."
For me, some of the most endearing aspects of Mildred’s character are the odd traits that crop up sporadically, with
almost no connection to the general outlines of her personality – like little anomalies in a handwoven fabric. These
inconsistencies make Mildred seem all the more real to me. She’s irked when a speedy conveyer belt at a cafeteria leaves
her without a saucer for her coffee. After a difficult day, when she feels she should be reading some poetry or devotional
material, she turns instead to a book of household hints:
I read about the care of aspidistras and how to wash lace and black woollen stockings, and I learned that a package or
envelope sealed with white of egg cannot be steamed open. Though what use that knowledge would ever be to me I could not imagine.
At one point, she sits down at her desk to write a difficult letter and, instead, finds herself wasting a lot of time studying
an old shopping list and wondering why an "egg poacher" should have appeared on it. The question seems as momentous, for the
moment, as any of life’s weighty issues.
And speaking of the perennial questions, Mildred hits a very responsive chord with me when, having produced the required
pot of tea during one crisis, and finding it unsatisfactory, she philosophizes: "I wondered why it was that tea could vary
so, even when one followed exactly the same method in making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to
do with it?"
If that doesn’t touch on one of life’s thorniest problems, I don’t know what does.
Quartet in Autumn (Novel) by Barbara Pym, 1977
It’s a well-known phenomenon: somebody’s nominated for an Academy Award, not so much on the basis of his or
her most recent work, but because the Academy feels guilty about having overlooked some previous work that was more deserving
of honour. That could be what happened in the case of Barbara Pym’s Quartet In Autumn. While not a bad book,
it’s by no means the masterpiece of her Excellent Women, published in 1952, and reviewed above.
Quartet in Autumn focuses on four people in late middle-age – two women and two men – who share an office
somewhere in the bureaucracy of the British government. I like the fact that we never find out exactly what it is that they
do; that says something about the dull, commonplace, time-marking aspect of their working lives. When the two women retire,
in fact, no one is hired to take the place of one of them because the tasks that occupied her for so many years are considered
irrelevant now. One of the foursome dies; the other three meet again at the funeral. A feeble attempt is made to establish
some sort of conviviality at a post-funeral luncheon.
Perhaps inevitably, given not just the subject matter but the changed circumstances of the author, Quartet In Autumn
lacks the delicious comedy ever simmering just under the surface in Excellent Women. Ms Pym’s humour still shows
on occasion but it’s muted now. There’s a lot of poignancy and attention to the minute details of the humble lives
of these people. For instance, the confused impressions of someone who’s suffering a stroke are very believably conveyed.
One of the female characters, a somewhat ungainly person, fantasizes about her relationship with her male surgeon. In the
woman’s mind, she’s almost having a full-blown affair with him, although nothing actually transpires outside the
recognized boundaries of professional consultation.
It’s not the bleak, forlorn feeling of the book that diminishes it somewhat in my opinion. What bothers me is more
basic: the writing doesn’t seem quite as good. Not as neat, as succinct. There’s more "telling" on the part of
the author, rather than creating characters and scenarios that stand on their own. Disconcerting thought: could this mean
that Ms. Pym was working with better editors on her earlier books? Or, did she somehow infer that the crisp, clean, highly-polished
writing of her earlier work wasn’t called for, now that readers expected novelists to be more prolix and discursive?
What a tragedy that would be if any artist could be deterred from the best of what she had to offer by considerations of what
the market wanted.
Still, Quartet In Autumn offers ample reward for a reader’s time spent, even if it doesn’t shine with
the lustre of Excellent Women.