Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reading Journal: "Excellent Women"

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (Virago Modern Classics 2008). With an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith. Originally published 1952. 288 pp. This edition is available only from Waterstone's booksellers in Great Britain. A Penguin edition is currently available in the United States.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, English novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980) published a handful of wonderfully sensitive, observant, and gently humorous novels, beginning with Some Tame Gazelle in 1950. That book set the tone for those that followed: the main characters were worthy spinsters, active in their church, attentive to the clergy, subsisting on tea and cauliflower cheese and hot milky drinks. Excellent women—prim and superbly capable in their own rather narrow spheres. When they do marry, they marry academics and assist their husbands with the preparation of the indices for their scholarly books.

One of my favorite Pym characters is Dulcie Mainwaring, in No Fond Return of Love (1961), who is a spinster and a compiler of scholarly indices. While at an academic conference, she attends a church service and finds her thoughts wandering:
The lay reader gave a short address. He tried to show how all work can be done to the Glory of God, even making an index, correcting a proof, or compiling an accurate bibliography. His small congregation heard him say, almost with disappointment, that those who do such work have perhaps less opportunity of actually doing evil than those who write novels and plays or work for films or television.

But there is more satisfaction is scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks than in making the most perfect index. Again her thoughts wandered to her home and all that needed to be done there, and she began to wonder why she had come to the conference when she had so many better ways of occupying her time.
This is vintage Barbara Pym: a churchgoing spinster on the margins of the academic world, finding herself grounded in the ordinary, everyday tasks of homemaking.

The same year that No Fond Return of Love was published, Mark Schorer published his massive biography of Sinclair Lewis. In the acknowledgments at the front of the book, he writes:
Finally, a book such as this almost always involves a few people whose faithful efforts put them somewhere beyond the proprieties of gratitute; for better or worse for them, they become, if they have not already been, part of oneself. I name three: Ann Goolsby, Joan Warmbrunn, and Ruth Page Schorer, the last of whom, in the long course of it, took a degree in what is called “library science,” the more effectively to help me. W. B. Yeats wrote:

Though Pedantry denies,
It’s plain the Bible means
That Solomon grew wise
While talking with his queens.

Charming Yeats! If I had more such women as have helped me with this book or more time than the time that I will have with one of them, even I might hope to become moderately wise.
I imagine Ruth Page Schorer as one the indispensable women whom Barbara Pym brings so marvelously to life in her novels. Even the condescending quotation marks around "library science" and the quotation from Yeats seem like Pym touches: the men in her novels think much of themselves, but they would be lost without their excellent women.

After the publication of No Fond Return of Love in 1961, the world seemed to leave Barbara Pym behind. The next novel she wrote, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by her publisher as too old-fashioned. (It was published posthumously in 1982.) Pym's scrupulous, churchgoing spinsters seemed out of place in the world of women's liberation. Then, in the late 1970s, the poet Philip Larkin and the scholar Lord David Cecil wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that Barbara Pym was the most underrated writer of the century. Suddenly, everyone wanted to read her again.

Excellent Women (1952) was her second published novel, and one of her best known. The narrator, thirtysomething spinster Mildred Lathbury, is one of Pym's finest creations: prim, sensible and devout, but wonderfully observant and self-aware. She is a clergyman's daughter, but unlike the kind of unfulfilled Victorian specimen in a F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924). The plot of Pym's novel is slight, but the pleasure of the book is in spending time with Miss Lathbury as she lives her "full life" of church jumble sales and pots of tea, indispensable to everyone around her.

2 comments:

Louise said...

What a wonderful review. I read Excellent Women earlier this year and found myself immediately living and thinking Pymish. The rest of my Pym titles, (including my favourite so far Crampton Hodnet) are still 'in transit', having been lost and then found by our shippers!

Penelope said...

I adore Pym and her excellent women. I think it is Mildred Lathbury who contemplates her underwear after hanging it to dry and reflects that it is exactly the sort of underwear someone like her would have, leaving no need to describe it further.

I think it may also be Mildred (drat, I can't lay my hand on my copy) who, while waiting for a very late lunch date, passes the time with the idea that restaurants might offer a special menu for stood-up women, featuring "the thinnest of soups" and other frugal and unglamorous items.

Her writing at its best is simply delicious. Thanks for a day-brightener!

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