Thursday, June 06, 2013
Pym's Excellent Women
Excellent Women / Barbara Pym
New York: Pan Books, 1995, c1952.
Meeting Mildred Lathbury in this novel was like making a new and quietly entertaining friend. Her first person narrative is so self-deprecating, and she has such powers of observation and understatement! She is an "excellent woman", the type of middle-aged spinster who devotes her time to the church and good works, who takes on others' burdens as her own.
And yet, she sees herself as such and maintains an ironic perspective on her place in the social strata. Against expectations, she is not pining for the local bachelor vicar, although she is good friends with him and everyone assumes she is in waiting, so to speak.
However, Mildred's quiet and fairly predictable life is shaken up when new tenants move into the flat below hers. The flashy Napiers, Helena and Rocky, are unlike any other people she has known, and they quickly become involved in her life. Helena, an anthropologist, couldn't care less about housekeeping or cooking, shocking Mildred with the mess she leaves strewn about. Helena is currently in the throes of a passion for her fellow anthropologist Everard Bone, who is rather clueless about it all and frightened by Helena's declaration of love. Rocky, meanwhile, is an inveterate flirt who even works his charm on Mildred, who thankfully is sensible enough to eventually see through it. As the Napier marriage shifts, Mildred is placed in the middle, expected to communicate between Rocky, Helena and Everard, even looking after having furniture shipped from the Napier's flat to their cottage to which Rocky has decamped, Helena having gone to her mother's.
Meanwhile, the vicar Julian and his sister Winifred have taken in a new lodger, Allegra Gray, a clergyman's young widow, who works her wiles on Father Malory. An engagement arises, distressing Winifred, who will be expected to leave the vicarage to go somewhere, anywhere, once they are married. Mildred is also caught in the middle in this situation, due both to her friendship with the Malorys and to Allegra's assumption that Mildred is a disappointed spinster who wanted Julian for herself. Mildred realizes that no matter how much she protests, nobody is ever going to believe that she had no interest in marrying Julian, so she resigns herself to playing the role of chief disappointed parishoner. During lunch conversation between Allegra and Mildred, when Allegra is 'breaking the news' (or perhaps more properly, gloating) about her engagement, Pym's bookish references arise once more. Allegra, fashionably nibbling bits of her lunch, says lightly that she is like the girls in Crome Yellow. Having just read Crome Yellow myself, I recalled the story of three fashionably waif-like sisters caught gorging on banquets in private...
But, in all of her messengering between all these people, Mildred begins to develop some kind of stilted friendship with the awkward Everard Bone. He invites her to dinner with his mother, a scene that is classic and very funny, as his mother is a bit of a crank who is convinced that birds are going to take over the world. Mildred is able to keep a sense of the absurd and find this meal entertaining. As the book ends, Mildred is once again having dinner with Everard, this time at his home, and cements their friendship by taking on the proofreading and indexing of his great work, despite knowing nothing of either the subject or the niceties of such tasks.
There are so many asides and pointed comments in this book -- Mildred is very funny, even if she doesn't necessarily see herself that way. She is self-aware and always interested in other people; she gets involved in all of this interpersonal wrangling despite admitting to herself near the end that she was tired of bearing other people's burdens. She is the quintessential 'excellent woman', but one who perhaps is not content with that role. In stepping outside of that role she is amusing, independent, and in the end I think admirable.
*in reading An Unsuitable Attachment, I noted a reference to Mildred that gives us some hint of her future. It's always fun to see how Pym inserts characters here and there in all of her books!