by Barbara Pym
Publication Date: December 26, 1952
Genre: classic, fiction
Project: a century of women
Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.
This review does contain some mild spoilers, although this is not a book that is particularly suspenseful, nor does it rely on a mystery to move the plot forward.
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 a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred’s building – Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred – an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.
I loved Mildred – she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.
In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena’s colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred’s life. There is much scandal around Helena’s relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him.
“Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes.”
I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier…
And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.
“I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles.”
“Naturally”, he said stiffly. And I don’t love her anyway.”
“Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you,” I said rashly.
“I’m sure she does,” said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. “She has told me so,”
“Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?”
“Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual.”
“But what did you tell her?”
“I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her.”
“You must have been rather startled,”I said, “Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it.”
So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?
I loved Mildred’s reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in – poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer’s lilies ended up on the floor.
“Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you,” said Winifred with appalling simplicity.
For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered.”
Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman – and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, a book I read in December 2018, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself.
“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.
But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she’s not a pushover. It’s frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, and she can’t protest because they will assume she is lying to protect her pride. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced – this may lead to marriage or it may not.
I just don’t get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone – and she’s decided that on her own.
She says of herself:
And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called “a full life” after all.
I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.
I’m also going to link to an article from 2013, the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth, written by Philip Hensher that talks about Barbara Pym and her career. She wrote a total of 13 books, divided into two distinct periods. Excellent Women is from her first period, and then her publisher dropped her in 1962. She wasn’t able to find a publisher again until Philip Larkin helped her to resurrect her career in 1977. Link to the article here.