Barbara Pym

Love is like a white rabbit?

Title: Excellent Women
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1952

Plot summary from Goodreads: Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym’s world at its funniest and most touching.

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.

A Century of Women, Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Author: Barbara Comyns
Published in 1950

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.”

Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.

That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.

Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.

His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.

The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.

It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.

This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.

There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave

“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”

Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”

It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.

After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.

I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.

He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.

As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.

I think probably all women have a story like this.

Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.

So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.