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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women.jpgRoy Kettle recommended this 1952 novel after I enthused on Facebook about Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child. He must have been responding to my comment on the slight satirical edge in the Heyer, because it's hard for me to imagine two more different books. (A little birdie told me, by the way, that one of my Heyer-loving friends was so upset by my sour review of Cotillion that he advises me not to read any more Heyer for the time being. I'll heed this no doubt wise advice before I get myself into trouble.) Anyway, Excellent Women is a romance of sorts, although to my mind it's a romance of disappointments and humiliations, and it's also a comedy of sorts, although I've elsewhere described it as the most melancholy comedy I've ever encountered. But at least one fan of the book didn't accept that description, so I'll try to tread carefully here. In truth, I find it hard to describe the book. It has also been categorized as a social comedy and a comedy of manners. It's a very finely observed satire of a certain British social class that I probably don't understand well enough to describe.

To quote Penguin's jacket copy, the protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, is "a clergyman's daughter and mild-mannered spinster." As Pym writes of her, in the first person, she does "part-time work at an organization which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.” This is very much a novel of reduced circumstances. It takes place in Britain right after WWII, and the empire has fallen and food rationing is still in place. The "excellent women" of the title are women like Mildred who are largely invisible and ignored, especially by men, but who are indispensable to making this threadbare society work. Mildred is dowdy, reserved, and cautious, but somewhere in her is a repressed stream of poetry and romance. She doesn't trust it, and indeed the novel seems to mock it. The men and women with the most romantic appeal in the story are the least trustworthy.

The excellent women toil in the shadows, and there's an interesting feminist aspect to the novel that never becomes really political. Men are portrayed as lazy and parasitical on women, but if Mildred or the other women feel any anger about it, the anger, like all other feelings, is repressed and reserved. The satire is delicate, and it aims at everyone, including most certainly Mildred herself, who constantly stifles her own impulses with a crushing sense of propriety and passivity: "I hesitated, for there was an uneasy feeling in the air, as if umbrage were about to be taken." The excellent women are not above policing each other for trying to get above their social station or for being overly romantic or, indeed, for not recognizing that sometimes you have to settle for something less than ideal because it's the proper, excellent thing to do.

Well, I despair of getting at why this is so funny, and partly it's because the comedy is so subtle. To repeat, it's a comedy of disappointment, humiliation, and making do. If the novel is in fact less melancholy than I found it, it's because the characters are more accepting of their disappointments and defeats than I want them to be, even as I admire Mildred's resilience and persistent, if sometimes self-defeating, kindness. It's really quite remarkable, and Pym's great strength is an ability to create portraits of recognizable individuals. If the characters are all slightly vain and ineffectual, well, it's a satire. As a longtime spinster myself, I suppose I recognized my own failings in Mildred's, although she is a far more excellent woman than I am. What's been interesting in reading about Pym and the modern response to her in the aftermath of reading the novel is that she appears to be making another comeback with the millennial generation that is so far more resistant to marriage than its elders. Pym was eventually dismissed as old-fashioned in her day, but maybe she was actually ahead of her time after all.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 27th, 2016 08:44 pm (UTC)
I love Barbara Pym. I'd certainly agree that she was a novelist of disappointments and humiliations.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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