An Excellent Woman in her natural habitat, at a jumble sale
With fall coming on - the trees in the landscape beyond our little terrace are turning, and the mornings are increasingly chilly when I go to walk the dogs - my thoughts as usual turn to things cozy and familiar. As a result, I am rereading Excellent Women.
On the surface, few authors seem cozier or less "problematic" (to use a favorite and at times almost meaningless word of critical circles) than Barbara Pym. During her fabled rediscovery, in the late '70s, when for the the first time in two decades her writing received wide acclaim and for the first time ever had a wide readership, it was generally assumed that Pym novels were light and amusing tales of a limited kind of life - a round of churchgoing, overheard conversations, and the unremarkable inner lives of rather gray, eccentric people in an Olde England that at times skirted the far edge of caricature.
At first, I must admit, I was one of those; I adored Pym, but in a way that didn't really acknowledge either the extraordinary ease with which she pulls off the tricky business of writing a form of comedy wholly free of pratfalls and indeed, really, of jokes, even as she's at the same time writing - with similar ease at an even greater challenge - a form of quotidian drama that skirts, not caricature, but tragedy. And sometimes only just.
I believe that Excellent Women was my first Pym, and along with A Glass of Blessings and An Unsuitable Attachment, I think it remains my favorite. Mildred Lathbury, the narrator (who very early on assures her readers 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, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.") lives in an unprepossessing flat in post-war London, a drab accommodation whose disadvantages include a landing bathroom shared with the flat downstairs.
The question of living spaces looms large in the novel; the sublet top floor of the local vicarage pushes some of the plot, such as is, forward (and supplies a setting for a prime Pym villainess), and the letting of the flat downstairs from Mildred provides the rest. But Excellent Women is no more a novel about real estate than Anna Karenina is one of railroad timetables. Rather, it is both an extended and sophisticated musing on the shortcomings of romantic love (even as the author, with equally clear eyes, acknowledges both its joys and its necessity) and as well a surprisingly affecting portrait of its era. The days just after the Second War were full of discomforts and petty but irritating shortfalls, from church services held in the side aisles of bombed sanctuaries to dishes (of almost spectacular unpromisingness) comprised of powdered eggs and worse. Even more, it was a time when people like Mildred and her circle faced the fact that the world had changed, but had not yet quite been able to figure out exactly what that meant for them and their understanding of everything from everyday politeness (the book is fraught at every turn with the possibility of misunderstandings large and small) to their own continued existence (Mildred works, half time or so, for a charity in aid of distressed gentlewomen, at least in part, she admits, because there's more than a small chance she'll end up as one).
On the surface, the story is everything that those who don't warm to Pym fear most: it is in fact infested with vicars, churchiness, and terrible-sounding food. Much is made of the exotic doings of anthropologists, and even more of the petty rivalries, alliances, and other goings-on that preoccupy the various inhabitants of a neighborhood just on the wrong side of Belgravia whom Mildred encounters. But indeed, that's only on the surface. Scratch a little, and one quickly finds something made of sterner stuff: a marriage hastily contracted and possibly on the rocks; a predatory widow; little quarrels and moments of annoyance always on the very brink of breaking out into something larger, more alarming. And, above it all, the floating stream of consciousness of Mildred herself, her thoughts on everything from fashion to philosophy.
If the story is both sparer and more acerbic than one might expect, the writing itself is of a discipline and economy that is little short of miraculous. With a few strokes Pym summons up a very particular milieu and then peoples it with a cast of characters whose essential personas and - even more remarkably - exact place in their universe one understands implicitly. The major characters - Mildred, her glamorous and troubling new neighbors the Napiers, the appalling Mrs. Allegra Gray, and more - are sketched in more detail, but the supporting cast is just as gripping: the women of various castes who make up the congregation of Mildred's church, the dubiously academic audience at the lecture of a learned society, and even the anonymous types Mildred encounters on the bus or at one of the restaurants where she takes her exiguous lunches. The world the excellent Miss Lathbury inhabits may seem an inviting (things dietary aside) and even a sentimental one, full of evensongs and hot cups of tea, but the Excellent Woman herself is anything but.
It's that contrast the provides the dramatic tension in this and the rest of Pym's work, and it's the rigor and intelligence that informs every line that ensures that new audiences will, I believe, continue to discover and dive deep into Pym-land. Come for the cauliflower-cheeses and comedy moments at the jumble sale; stay for the deep wells of wry wisdom, tempered sadness, and deeply satisfying, even if at times only momentary, existential triumph. That's the genius of Mildred Lathbury, and of Barbara Pym.