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Monday, December 20, 2010

Pottering with Pym: Excellency amongst women and novelists

I have just finished Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women over a cup of tea, in somebody else’s home whilst marooned in London due to snow, and just for a moment, albeit a short one, I identified with its heroine, the inestimable Mildred Lathbury. I am happy, but not quite settled. I take the view that a cup of tea solves most problems but I know that it doesn’t solve them all. I am looking around at the snow caked city and thinking – well – let’s just wait and see.

Mildred is a bit like that. She is the narrator of this excellent novel in which she reveals her character and her place in the world by gentle turns and subtle humour. Mildred is a clergyman’s daughter who has found herself over 30 and unmarried in an age when that usually meant that you could forget your chances in the marriage market. She is not at all rich but she is firmly middle class. She lives in a flat which shares its bathroom with others. She is extremely churchy – her closest friends being the local vicar and his spinster sister. Mildred volunteers and helps and sorts and mucks in and is generally a self contained, self sufficient woman upon whom everyone seems to depend.

Enter stage right a considerable amount of disturbance in the form of Mildred’s new neighbours, Rockingham “Rocky” and Helena Napier. Helena is a spirited anthropologist who is more interested in the origins of civilisation than in being a “proper” wife 1950s style. This state of affairs has poor Mildred completely flummoxed, not least because Mrs Napier’s husband Rocky is rather lovely. He has spent the war in Italy – Mildred imagines charming Wrens.

This book is largely about the distinction – now very little but then a vast chasm – between married and unmarried women. At the beginning of the book, Mildred comments disarmingly “Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women, who tell their stories in the first person”. That is to say - reader don’t expect an “I married him” moment.

The distinctions which Pym illustrates have mostly to do with status and position. One that really fascinates is the dividing of the married and the unmarried between the passive observers and the active non-observers. According to one of her fellow unmarrieds: “We, my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier”. He lifted the bottle, judged the amount left in it and refilled his own glass but not mine. “Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation”.

Other excellent opinions are to be found at Dovegreyreader, the Red Room library and the wonderful My Porch. I have included a picture of the front cover of the latest Virago edition, and the lady herself, together with a slightly grumpy looking cat.

13 comments:

  1. A great novel by a great author. Thanks.

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  2. Pym is perfect for reading at this time of year. Very glad that Virago have been republishing her.

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  3. Great review! This is on my shelf and ready for a post-holiday read. I like your cover much better though...

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  4. Reading this made me happy! I've read all of Barbara Pym, much much too long ago. I want to start re-reading her...and if that could happened while drinking a cup of tea and being marooned in snow, I couldn't think of anything more perfect.

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  5. My older daughter and I both love Barbara Pym. She is really good to re-read. Great that she is being republished!

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  6. The novel reads just as well in Tucson (not London), July (102 and no snow), and a cold stein of beer (no tea, this time anyway).

    It's the first novel of hers that I've read, and she's on the list for a second book. Any suggestions or just take what's available?

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  7. Have long loved Barbara Pym - she is often sadly neglected these days, so thank you for resurrecting her!

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  8. I am glad you had something excellent to read while you are stranded. Our house guests from Den Haag got stuck in London on their way to Washington so they won't be making it here at all. Very disappointing. I hope you get where you are going.

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  9. I read this one earlier this year, too, and enjoyed it though sometimes I just wanted to tell Mildred to pluck up. I have Jane & Prudence on my shelf, too, which I *think* continues Mildred's story, or at least she is mentioned in an aside in a way that kind of makes me sad. I suppose that is very obscure of me to say, but I don't want to give anything away.

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  10. This is so wonderful - both the book and your writing about it. The cover is one I haven't seen. It is so startling because of course Mildred seems so much older, and even though we do know she isn't 60, it feels like she is. There are observers in this life, and though they are often pitied for not really 'living' - those of us who are such don't feel badly at all. I like my quiet reading and watching. Even when I was younger, I wasn't a party girl or an adventure seeking person.

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  11. I haven't read this one, but you've made me want to. There's such poignancy surrounding Barbara Pym, both the books and the life. Have you read her friend Hazel Holt's biography of her, A Lot to Ask? Years ago, it had me striding across Pimlico, juggling book and A-Z to find the top floor corner flat where Miss Pym lived, worked and experienced such gentle disappointments.

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  12. I've only read one Barbara Pym novel, the very excellent Quartet in Autumn. I'm keen to read more of her work, and I know that Excellent Women is her most well regarded work. I must try to get to read more of her soonish. Thanks for the review and reminding us of her.

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