For some unexplainable reason, I had Barbara Pym down as a writer of a different generation altogether. I wasn’t so off as to have catalogued her as an Austen or an Edgeworth, but I did mistakenly think she wrote somewhere around the turn of the century. However, she is much more contemporary. The bulk of her novels were published between 1950 and 1980, although several that were written earlier were published after her death in 1980.
My first experience of Pym’s work comes through her second novel, Excellent Women, published in 1952. Because of this title, I can’t help kicking off my Women Writers Project with this book. Pym uses this label, excellent women, with terrible irony, so I suppose I should be careful how I throw it around, but her ironic use of what should be a compliment reminds me of why I wanted to do this project in the first place. Pym is looking sharply at women’s roles and women’s happiness and so what better book to launch a project whose impetus came out of my frustration that women writers aren’t getting as much air time as their male counterparts.
Excellent Women is not about a woman writer, but it is about how women get noticed and about how women must navigate a male-dominated world. And the heroine of Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, is definitely literary. However, despite of (maybe because of!) her knowledge of English poets, she is heading toward confirmed spinsterhood. She lives on her own, spending most of her time in the company of members of her local church, especially Father Malory and his sister. The story begins with new tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Napier, moving into the flat below Mildred’s. The Napiers are a rather bohemian couple, and by that I mean that they seem to be anticipating the impending social and sexual revolution about to sweep the West, while Mildred and many of her friends and acquaintances are comfortable in the quieter times they are about to be forced to leave behind.
Now, just quickly, before I go on, I have to make a tiny complaint about the introduction to my edition of Excellent Women. I have a Folio Society edition, and it is absolutely beautiful, but the introduction actually gives away the entire story. So I knew what was going to happen to Mildred before I even started the book. This was unfortunate, actually, because the question of her future is quite central to story.
Mildred’s future, or more correctly, Mildred’s future happiness, seems to rely on the question of her being married. Isn’t this what she should want? Isn’t this what all women want? Pym frames and re-frames this question of the value of marriage throughout the novel, setting forth both good and bad examples of marriage, and letting Mildred explore her own feelings on the matter. But before this review makes it sound like Excellent Women is a form of 1950s chick lit, let me point out that the tone of Mildred’s constant musing is so wonderfully sharp, so dry and critical (of herself and of others), that the book turns away from its pretend focus on the race for wedded bliss and becomes a keen, sharp-edged analysis of social manners of the period.
The book is amazingly funny and I caught myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Mildred’s explanations for other people’s behaviors are often hilarious. She is critical of others, but also both astonished and admiring. There are moments when a desire to transcend her own fussy, prissy manners takes a hold of her, and she gives the reader a glimpse of a very real fragility, a longing to be someone else, to experience another kind of life. But then she quickly returns to her comfort zone, often with a subtly derisive comment on someone else. This combination of delicate and censorious is especially effective.
I’d like to read more of Pym, and my plan is to try the last of her “comedic” novels, No Fond Return of Love, because I’m curious how her satire evolved throughout the sixties and into the seventies. Did it become even more biting? Following that I’d like to read Quartet in Autumn, as this was the book that brought her back to publishing after a long series of rejections. It was then shortlisted for the Booker. Any other suggestions from the bookish crowd?