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
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