Mia reflects on one of her favorite novels, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. In its earliest draft, this post was 80 percent quotations.

I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to buy a copy of Excellent Women. It surely wasn’t the front cover, with its dowdy floral print. Or the back cover, with its black-and-white photo of the elderly author holding a cat. Or the description of the story’s heroine Mildred Lathbury, “a clergyman’s daughter and a spinster.”

I was in high school and, having already read Jane Austen’s tiny oeuvre, I was thirsty for more works by witty British women. So it was probably the front-cover quote calling author Barbara Pym “a twentieth-century Jane Austen” that did it for me. Inside were poet Philip Larkin’s take on Pym (“the most underrated writer of the century”) and John Updike’s condescending praise for poor Mildred Lathbury (“one of the last of the great narrating English virgins”).  I couldn’t resist.

An introspective 30-something “spinster,” Mildred lives alone in a little flat in post-war London (Pym wrote the book in 1952). She fills her days working (“I did part-time work at an organisation which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.”), volunteering at her local Anglican parish and generally playing the role of an excellent woman – a helpful women who, by merit of her singledom and therefore perceived emptiness of her life, is expected to take on everyone’s business as her own:

Platitudes flowed easily from me, perhaps because, with my parochial experience, I know myself to be capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoilt by bad weather…”Mildred is such a help to her father,” people used to say after my mother died.

Much like in Austen’s books, there is a certain way things are done in Mildred’s world. The difference to the modern reader, however, is that Mildred’s world, with its dirty dishes after teatime, doesn’t offer the same escapism as Austen’s country balls. There’s a mundane relatability to Mildred’s trials. Still, she is charming. For as much as she’s just another tea-drinking, church-going, well-behaved young women in a nondescript brown coat, we are attracted to Mildred for her insight, but also for her unspoken insistence that she is no better than any of her ridiculous peers. At any rate, rebelling against this polite world seems impossible:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, “Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury…” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

On its surface, Excellent Women is a comedy, poking fun at gossipy church ladies and members of “the Learned Society” alike. And yet, what struck me during my most recent reading was the aura of sadness that surrounds Mildred, which is thrown into relief by the appearance of a glamorous new couple next door: Rockingham, whose job in the navy was literally putting people at ease, and Helena, an anthropologist and admittedly bad homemaker — decidedly not an excellent woman. And then there’s the wonderfully named Everard Bone, an anthropologist, as well as an avid churchgoer. While discussing Everard’s presentation of an anthropological paper, Mildred, revealingly, explains her situation:

“I shall look forward to hearing your paper,” I said, feeling that some effort was required and that it was up to me to make it.
“Oh, you will find it dreadfully dull,” he said. “You musn’t expect too much.”
I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little — nothing, almost.

Like a lot of modern women, Mildred seems uneasy about being single, largely because this choice has pushed her to the margins of a society that favors tradition. Of course she expects nothing! No one expects anything of her – the best she could have done, after all, would have been to get married. It’s almost as though the contemporary mentality about the worth of single women – both in 1952 and today – is stuck in Austen’s time.

And yet, under this society-enforced sadness, Mildred, like Pym herself, seems to enjoy spinsterhood. Mildred talks about the joys of living alone and, hearing about the death of a woman’s husband, remarks, “I wonder if she feels a great sense of freedom.” And, of course, Mildred is free. She can work half-days (for all the talk of distressed gentlewomen and meals of wilted lettuce, unspoken privilege plays a large role in this book), dine out and not worry about housekeeping for anyone but herself.

I struggle with characterizing Excellent Women as feminist, largely because Pym’s world is so steeped in traditional niceties that it sometimes seems disconnected from radical social change. But, then again, Pym likely hadn’t read The Second Sex (the English translation didn’t come out until 1953) and it’d be about another decade until the coming of the second wave of feminism and its profound impacts on society and politics. I’m inclined to say that the mere act of proposing an alternate path for women’s fulfillment – in this case, being single, though other Pym heroines are academics or working women – is feminist. At any rate, it’s refreshing.

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