SCW Books: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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Time on to-read: About six months- but heard about it several times before actually putting it on the list.

Reason for not reading: Honestly forgot about it for awhile- gonna have to invoke so many books, so little time here!

Reason for finally picking up: I went to my glorious annual book sale of a million books recently, and there was a lovely little copy of it there that I could not resist. Once I had it, it called my name over all the other books I’d just gotten.

Verdict: Exactly what I expected and wanted and book people recommendations come through once more!

Awhile ago, I asked for recommendations for books that take place in small villages. I’d just done a re-read of Emma and followed that up with An Accomplished Woman, and I was really enjoying the scale of the worlds and the consequent depth of observation that this allowed for- which is why I asked for more. One that came up a couple of times but hadn’t made it to the top yet was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I wish that I had listened to the recommenders and gotten to this sooner, because this is everything I wanted and more.

Excellent Women focuses on Mildred Lethbury, a thirtyish woman living in London in the early 1950s. While this might not sound like it qualifies as a “small village” book, that would be to confuse the London of today with the London of then. As it was in the early 1800s when Emma’s Highbury was a village, the various neighborhoods of the city formed small, often self-contained, communities of their own within the larger city. This was especially true in the bombed-out postwar city as people made the most of what they had and tried to put some semblance of a life back together. Mildred may have had slightly more mobility than the small town ladies of most village novels (she went further downtown to work), but this didn’t affect her outlook overly much. Her world, as the book opens, is her local church, its vicar, and its crowd of “excellent women” of the title, who crowd about the church doing “good works”- her greatest excursion is her Wednesday trip to services at another church downtown whose pastor, due to the war, is still undecided, and receives new visiting priests each week.

It’s a comfortable, predictable life, in which Mildred does a lot of good, and has friends who care for her and a world she understands. Unfortunately for her (or fortunately depending on how you look at this story, ultimately), Mildred lives in a house with two apartments. So, in the first pages of this novel, into this comfortable life steps some new, highly unconventional downstairs neighbors, the Napiers. The Napiers have newfangled ideas (Helena is an anthropologist) and glamorous pasts (Rockingham-yup, that’s his name- spent the war in Italy, and Helena did research in Africa). Their marriage is not decorous and supportive (not that Mildred would dream of eavesdropping- she just cannot choose but to overhear some things they say), it is full of yelling and conflicts. Worse, they have unconventional acquaintances, like fellow anthropologist Everard Bone, a most irritating man. Trouble also comes from another neighbor taken in at the vicarage with amiable Julian and his sister Winifred, trying to help with the national housing shortage: Mrs. Gray. There is just something one cannot quite like about her if you know what she means, and if you’ve ever read a book like this, you totally do. Or you will, before long. (Well done, Pym, I wanted to scratch this lady’s eyes out from my sheer depth of recognition of her awfulness within pages of meeting her.) Mildred navigates these complications like the excellent woman she is of course, but things get quite upsetting.

As you can see, it’s all very small scale. The troubles of five or six families in a country village, to the life (more like three or four, really). But I finished it in a day, and there are lots of reasons why. First, Pym did a great job with her first-person narration. I think making Mildred, sweet, apparently dependable Mildred, an unreliable narrator, filtering events through her anxious, well-meaning mind, was a very strong choice. It humanized and gave interest to a character who could have been laughed at and satirized from the outside, Thackeray-style, super easily. Pym did poke gentle fun at her, but from the perspective of one who understands and loves this character. Occasionally it seemed like Pym could perhaps become slightly defensive of her character, which I suspect was perhaps an overidentification.

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I also understand that she was likely writing for a similar audience, much in the same manner that A Provincial Lady was (who I also loved and need to read more of), and it didn’t obtrude enough to be truly bothersome. Besides, the rhythm of Mildred’s quiet, determined, well-intentioned mind did the work of gathering sympathy all on its own.

Which leads me to my second reason for loving this. This is yet another in a series of wonderful books about women quietly rebelling that I’ve been finding and reading for years, books about “extra” women, or “unwanted” women, women who are expected to bear the burdens of others, women who rebel in their own ways-not with violence or dramatic displays,  but simply by preferring not to. Books like Lolly Willowes and The Awakening is what I mean- and Excellent Women is another high quality entry into this list. Mildred refuses to be the sighing spinster desperately angling for a husband, desperate for romance, that society might perceive her to be, or the eternally perky, “useful” woman- despite trying her very best to be the latter sometimes, despite occasionally wishing to be the former. Mildred is a person- the scene where she refuses a date that could possibly be romantic from a man because she assumes that he is inviting her over to cook for him (he literally calls and is like “I have some meat to be cooked”, so you can forgive her), made me want to cheer, as did the scene where a man makes a romantic overture for clearly the wrong reasons and way too soon and she has none of it. I love stories about women who are secure enough to be true to themselves, and it turns out that this story, despite Mildred’s struggles with the roles people assume she will perform for them, is ultimately about that. Mildred is a person, and she will set some firm (if quiet) limits about that when she can. I wish she had done it more, sooner, and louder, but don’t we all wish that for ourselves and others? How often do we achieve it? Mildred does it enough to make me feel a great respect for her, enough to inspire me to hope that I might be able to do the same for myself one day.

Finally, I think this was all so effective because Pym did a great job immersing the reader in her world without ever being preachy or doing a great deal of obvious world building. Like many great writers before her, she let the dialogue and thoughts and actions of her characters fill in the rest, with only minimal physical description to fill it out. Perhaps this was because she was writing for a contemporary audience who already lived in this world- but I didn’t need to live there to see the colors it was painted in in spite of that, which speaks volumes of her writing. I loved the oblique, offhand references to the aftermath of the war- the church she goes to Wednesday service at is always full because half of the church is still bombed out and unrepaired, so much of the plot is about new and unlikely neighbors because people are scrambling for housing in a half-built city, people showing generosity by using their rations of special items on guests, the number of widows and single women trying to make their way, the vicar in the bombed out church missing because he had been killed in the war, the way marriages were still being affected by the war’s long separation. This is a story about how the war continued to affect people for years afterward, told in the most everyday sort of way, without any sort of drama. Pym tells us only the surface, but the surface is more than enough to hint at what must underlie some of the more subtle shifts in her character’s mind, where her periodic restlessness may come from, the anxiety present in some characters’ behavior, and the unchanging nature of others.

All in all, this book will be exactly what you’d expect. But it will be that at high quality, it will be that with unexpected sympathy, with grace and with quiet pride. And you’ll remember Mildred, you’ll remember her far longer than you would any of her real life number. And with that, I think Pym would be content.