I can’t remember when I first heard the name of Barbara Pym, she seems to have been on my reading horizon forever, yet for some reason I’ve never picked up one of her novels before this week. Lately, however, I’ve found myself being drawn to the fiction of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which for the most part has so far passed me by, and Pym seemed an ideal place to start, the more so because Excellent Women, her second novel, published in 1952, was being offered as a very reasonably priced e-book.
The introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition, written by Alexander McCall Smith, speaks of the decline in her popularity during the 1960s, when Jonathan Cape, her usual publisher, rejected An Unsuitable Attachment. Of course, he writes, Barbara Pym would be considered old-fashioned in the decade of flower power and drugs, and publishers, like anyone else, might have been carried away by the heady atmosphere of the times. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s and the championing of her books by Philip Larkin and David Cecil that Pym found her work back in fashion.
What wonderful embarrassment for those who believed that an unmitigated diet of gritty social realism, graphically described sexual couplings and sadistic violence was what readers really wanted – and all they should get. The entire time the reading public, or quite a large section of it, was really yearning for the small-scale delights, the beautiful self-deprecating humour and the brilliant miniaturisation of Barbara Pym’s novels.
It is precisely those small scale delights, that same beautifully self-deprecating humour, not to mention the brilliant miniaturisation which makes Excellent Women a perfect read for a time when we are threatened by something so huge and incomprehensible that trying to get our minds around it is almost impossible.
Mildred Lathbury lives what might be seen as a small life, occupying rooms in a London tenement sometime after the Second World War, a period when people are still trying to find their feet and understand the changing society around them. Her life revolves around the local church, her friendship with Julian Malory, the vicar, and his sister Winifred, and the work that she does for an organisation assisting impoverished gentlewomen: a cause, she tells us, very near to her own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one. Mildred is precisely the kind of individual to whom the term ‘excellent woman’ is likely to be applied: a pillar of the church, constantly reliable, conservative (with a very small C) in her lifestyle and well on her way to earning the soubriquet “spinster”. However, excitement threatens with the arrival of the Napiers, who not only take tenancy of the other half of the building, but also share a bathroom with Mildred – the burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seem to me rather a heavy one. The Napiers are everything that Mildred and the good churchgoing people of the neighbourhood are not. She is an anthropologist and the dashing Rockingham (Rocky when you know him better) an ex-naval officer whose wartime speciality appears to have been comforting Wrens stationed away from home. Completing an awkward ménage à trois is Mrs Napier’s fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone, object of Mrs Napier’s affection when the relationship between her and her husband do indeed become extremely “rocky“ in nature. At some point in the novel all three of these individuals, not to mention Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, turn to Mildred with complete confidence that she will sort out their current difficulty, usually by performing herself the everyday or awkward tasks that they are either too lazy or too incompetent to take on themselves. They see her as the archetypal “excellent woman“.
However, they are mistaken, and so to is the reader if they think that Barbara Pym’s aim is to reinforce the stereotype, which, of course, inevitably includes a languishing but futile passion for the local minister. Although Mildred is perfectly happy to spend time with the men who suddenly seem to be populating her life, marriage is not something for which she is looking and consequently when the real villain of the piece, Allegra Gray, a clergy widow, comes onto the scene and sets about getting her claws into the hapless Julian, Mildred’s primary concern is for Winifred, who has no place in Mrs Gray’s plans, rather than for herself. Possibly the most telling aspect of this is that Julian himself has assumed that Mildred is in love with him and is therefore going to be shattered by the news of his engagement. To what extent, Pym seems to be asking, is the concept of the “excellent woman“ a fabrication on the part of those members of society who benefit most from their existence. Mildred Lathbury most definitely is an excellent woman, but not in the sense of the term is usually applied. She is independent, she knows her own mind and, when her way of life is threatened, she speaks her mind as well.
Setting aside Mildred, with whom I have to say I feel a certain kinship, The chief joy of this novel is Pym’s wonderful way with words, a way that so often pins precisely the absurd realities of humanity and all its foibles. Time and again I found myself jotting down sentences just for the sheer pleasure of being able to re-read them. Just a couple of examples:
Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti.
A very young curate, just out of the egg, I should think.
And my favourite, although I have to admit I don’t completely understand it – I boiled myself a foreign egg for dinner. Can anyone elucidate? What constitutes a ‘foreign’ egg? One shipped in from the continent? I seem to remember Helen Hanff sending fresh eggs to the booksellers of 84 Charing Cross Road.
There must be many other authors who, like Pym, found themselves neglected as fashions changed in the late 50s and early 60s. Indeed, there may be many such now, whose close and perceptive explorations of human nature are being overlooked in favour of works whose subject matter is more in tune with the current zeitgeist. The time has come, I think, for a wider exploration on my part of such writers. Who do you suggest I try next?