When I first read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in 1979 it certainly provoked a strong response, but hardly the admiration the cover blurb demanded for ‘one of the finest examples of high comedy of the last century’. I felt fury mixed with bafflement.
For me, at that time, every novel was a possible blueprint for how to live your life. Borne along on the second wave of feminism, the only thing I and my friends were sure of was that we didn’t want lives like our mothers’. Exactly what we did want wasn’t clear. But what I didn’t want in spades was a life like that of Mildred Lathbury, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title.
To my youthful eye the novel was the summation of every bad old thing I’d left home to escape. Mildred is the daughter of a deceased vicar living a small and hopelessly genteel life in London just after the Second World War. Her life is exemplary – and dull. When not listening to talks on the BBC Home Service she rinses her stockings – not nylons, for the only Americans Mildred meets are anthropologists, who are not known for giving a girl a good time. She works for the Distressed Gentlewoman’s Association and her local church.
The plot hinges on the marital affairs of a smart young couple who take the flat below, and a designing minx who sets her fur cape at the vicar. Mildred’s role is to be made use of by almost every character in the book. A conclusion of sorts is reached when a priggish young man called Everard Bone, who I concluded incredulously must be the romantic hero, asks Mildred to help with – i.e. do for free – the typing, proofing and indexing of his new book. ‘I’ve noticed that Excellent Women always seems to make men uncomfortable,’ mused Ms Pym somewhat disingenuously. In a sequel, Jane and Prudence, Everard and Mildred get married.
I was not so utterly self-absorbed that I didn’t notice and appreciate a certain gentle malice informing this even narrative. And I grudgingly admitted that it was quite funny in places. But overall it made me whinny with frustration. Why didn’t Mildred stop being so meek? Make herself over? Raise her self-esteem? Take control of her life? Remember, this was 1979, a particularly unfortunate moment to be making a stand for the virtues of restraint, self-effacement and humility. It was the year Mrs Thatcher was elected, the year that Scruples by Judith Krantz, the first of the gold-embossed ‘entitlement’ novels, was published over here. The voice of the self-help guru was being heard in the land. Credulous young women like me were being assured that it was possible to have a high-powered job, an Olympian sex life, gorgeous clothes, lovely homes, contented children and marriage to a very rich man with no visible sign of strain. All you needed was a Filofax and a bit of focus. We were confident that we could ‘Have It All’, whilst all Barbara Pym could offer was a faint ‘Not So Bad, Really’.
Time passed. ‘Having It All’ turned out to be ‘Doing Nothing Properly’. Common sense made a belated reappearance. Many gold-embossed novels found their way to Oxfam. And I discovered how very much I enjoyed revisiting the drab postwar world of Barbara Pym.
For me, one of the most powerful aspects of Excellent Women is the extraordinarily vivid picture it draws of London just after the war. Without labouring the point, Pym immerses the reader in a landscape of worn-out people who have won the war but are too exhausted to enjoy the peace. London life is one of sooty, damaged buildings and an atmosphere of privation, cold and rootlessness. The lunchtime services Mildred attends take place in a bomb-damaged church, the side aisles full of smashed cherubs and chipped tablets. Food rationing means that the acquisition of a small joint of meat is an occasion worth celebrating by inviting a friend round to share it; and when the rector paints a wall with an old pot of pre-war cream distemper and is doubtful about the resulting colour, no one present can reassure him that it’s authentic, for none of them can remember what cream looks like.
But my renewed interest was not simply a wave of nostalgia for Kardomahs or carrying a fish wrapped in newspaper in a string bag. There were so many things about this story with which I identified. Like Mildred’s, my growing up had been shaped by religion. My family’s life had also revolved around the local church. For us the seasons were marked by the colour of vestments as well as the colour of leaves, and it was not until I left home that I discovered that social occasions could and did take place without a tea urn. I also recognized and thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s description of bad behaviour at the church jumble sale.
What gave the novel an added piquancy was that, in spite of her obvious religious commitment, Barbara Pym was remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about the Church. Her clergy are a group of men acting out their vocations with a distinct lack of conviction. The Church she describes is no longer a vital force in society. On the contrary, it is peopled by uncertain shepherds and a shrinking flock made up almost entirely of ‘excellent women’. And ‘excellent women’ usually means spinsters. Even those lucky enough to get a proposal of typing seem destined to remain childless. In this respect at least we Romans had the Anglicans completely trumped: there were no children in their congregations – so unlike the life in our own dear noisy pews.
What I had failed to see in the Scornful Seventies was the social commentary, the extent to which Mildred is kept in her place by the teachings of both Church and society. Barbara Pym is often compared with Jane Austen, who would certainly have recognized Mildred’s world. Like Jane Austen, Mildred lived at a time when women still had to look almost solely to marriage for fulfilment. This was fine if you drew Mr Darcy or Henry Tilney in the marriage lottery, less good when your ticket turned out to entitle you to become Mrs Everard Bone. Yet this title at least gave Mildred status and an identity in a world that could only offer a spinster the role of ‘excellent woman’, or doormat to all comers.
Because that world is so small and contained and usually middle-class, Barbara Pym’s novels are easily dismissed as interesting but marginal. But, as I came to realize, they are full of wit, balance, sly observation and a cheering sense of the ridiculous. My own self-dramatizing search for literary ways to live my life rather dwindled away after I had children. Living became more a matter of crashing on with things, regardless of any blueprint. A day that could be concluded with the thought ‘Everyone got fed and no one died’ was a good one.
For nostalgic reasons I reread Scruples recently and preposterous tosh though it is, I was still affected. No story of a girl shedding a great deal of weight in adolescence will ever lose the power to move me. Heavily plotted novels with facile resolutions have their place – usually on a Friday night when the human spirit is known to be at a very low ebb. But the more lasting messages of how to live your life I found, after all, in Excellent Women. Mildred’s keen eye for the ridiculous, her integrity, her lack of self-pity and her intense pleasure in small things now seem to me admirable. Coping mechanisms they may be, but there are worse ways of dealing with life.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Frances Donnelly 2006
About the contributor
After twenty-five years as a producer and presenter on Radio 4, Frances Donnelly moved to East Anglia where she is working on her third novel. In addition, maddened by the demise of the Kardomah, the ABC and Joe Lyons, she has set up her own bakery business, Homemade Cakes of Ditchingham, and supplies a number of genteel teashops in Norfolk and Suffolk.