Like Elizabeth Taylor (whose Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek I reviewed fairly recently), Barbara Pym is another of those English novelists I’ve been meaning to try for some time. First published in 1952, Excellent Women was her second novel, and I believe many readers consider it to be one of her best.
The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in a down-at-heel part of London, ‘so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’. Mildred is very sensible, diplomatic and accommodating; in short, she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments or worries of her own.
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. (pg. 1)
As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred is closely involved with the local Anglo-Catholic church where she helps the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred, with various activities (jumble sales, church bazaars and suchlike). Having never married, Julian and Winifred share a home at the vicarage – they are Mildred’s closest friends.
Into Mildred’s unexciting but fairly settled life come Helena and Rocky Napier, a rather intriguing married couple who have spent the past few years living apart from one another. Helena, an anthropologist by profession, arrives first, moving into the flat below Mildred’s where she seems to spend many an evening entertaining her colleague, the rather standoffish Everard Bone. At first Mildred isn’t sure if she likes Helena, but she does her best to be polite and neighbourly. Rocky appears a few weeks later having just returned to England following an extended stint in the Navy.
It soon becomes apparent that relations between Helena and Rocky are somewhat strained; consequently, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman come in very handy as she attempts to mediate between the couple. Even though it is hard for her to take sides in this situation, Mildred finds Rocky particularly easy to talk to. He is attractive and charming, and Mildred is clearly brightened by his company.
Matters are further complicated when the attractive widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the room at the top of the Malorys’ rectory. At first, everything is sweetness and light. As the former wife of a clergyman, Mrs Gray ought to be ideally suited to life at the vicarage. That said, it is not long before she upsets the balance at the Malorys’. Julian is clearly smitten with her…and when developments have a knock-on effect on Winifred, Mildred is called on for support.
While Mildred is interested in the emotional lives of those around her, she values her own independence and does not feel the need to throw herself into relationships simply in the hope of finding a suitable husband. There are times when she feels she may have missed out on certain experiences in life, but in many ways she takes comfort from the fact that her current position as a spinster is familiar and uncomplicated. By contrast, other people around her seem intent on trying to do a spot of matchmaking. There are a number of occasions when Mildred’s friends and acquaintances seem to think they know what’s best for her (irrespective of Mildred’s own wishes). Take this example as Helena, Rocky and Mildred are travelling home after a night out with Everard Bone – the Napiers even go so far as to start talking about Mildred as if she were not present at the time.
‘You and Everard seemed to be having an interesting conversation,’ said Helena at last. ‘Was he declaring himself or something?’ Her tone was rather light and cruel as if it were the most impossible thing in the world.
‘He was telling me about his new flat,’ I said lamely.
‘Actually he might do very well for Mildred,’ said Rocky. Had we thought of that? Obviously, we must find her a good husband.’
We were rather far from our own door, and just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out, laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home after the paper. This was Julian’s boys’ club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen – much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent. (pgs. 109-110)
There are other men in Mildred’s life too; most notably the rather finickity William Caldicote, the brother of an old school friend, whom Mildred meets once a year for lunch, and Julian Malory, whom many consider her ideal (and possibly rightful) partner.
Marriage is a central theme in this novel. Set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage, the story explores the idea of whether it is possible for a woman like Mildred to live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried. When she considers the stresses and strains of the Napiers’ marriage (not to mention the nature of developments between Julian Malory and Allegra Gray), Mildred is not at all convinced that she should marry. She does, however, value friendship and companionship in her life and hopes for more of these things in the future.
Excellent Women is my first experience of Barbara Pym’s work, and I hope it won’t be my last. I really enjoyed this story – it is beautifully observed, full of small but significant reflections on life in the 1950s. In many ways, the plot is secondary to other aspects of the novel as much of the focus falls on Mildred’s thoughts, feelings and observations. One of the things I liked most is Pym’s tendency to treat her characters with sympathy. She has a way of conveying humour alongside the difficulties that touch the everyday lives of these people, and yet there is a sense of insight and understanding in her writing, too.
The novel includes several humorous scenes with much of the dry wit coming from the interactions between the characters. There is plenty of gossiping and friendly bickering amongst the volunteers as they organise the parish jumble sale and hold meetings to discuss forthcoming events. All in all, I found it a charming and engaging story.
I’ll finish with a quote from one of the early chapters of the novel, partly because I think it illustrates a little of the humour in the story, Pym’s eye for dry comedy in the small tragedies of everyday life. In this scene, Mildred has joined the Malorys for dinner at the vicarage.
I sat down at the table without any very high hopes, for both Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.
Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese. (pg. 12)
Excellent Women is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.