Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Excellent Women (Virago Reading Week Review)

I've just finished my first Virago Modern Classic for Virago Reading Week and, incidentally, my first Barbara Pym novel. It was an entertaining read with beautiful prose and insights into human foibles and frailties.

Excellent Women is written in the first person by our protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, and is set in 1950's London. Margaret is a spinster in her early thirties and is known as one of the "excellent women": women who are likely to remain spinsters and fill their days by being of service to others.

This is a subtle and poignant read with episodes of gentle humour scattered throughout as we follow Mildred through a year in London when her normal day-to-day life is altered by the arrival of her dashing new neighbours. Mildred finds herself drawn to the married Rocky Napier whilst at the same time having ambivalent feelings about his wife and her friendship with fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (a surname that tickled me, especially since he dabbled in archaeology).

Mildred is also firm friends with her vicar and his sister and much of her life is dedicated to assisting these two in their church activities, whilst she works part-time at a charity. The arrival of the Napiers works as a catalyst in terms of Mildred's love-life (or lack thereof) and she finds herself increasingly involved in their matrimonial problems and asked to bear more than she should.

This novel started out quite light and pleasant, painting a picture of a cosy little area in London and the people that live and work there. However, as the novel progresses, complications develop, alliances are made and broken and everyone seems to take Mildred for granted. Mildred is intelligent, though shy and self-doubting, and is aware of the irony of her status in society, i.e. "excellent women" are used and relied upon by men but matrimony is not forthcoming.  Women with her brand of domestic and social skills are not chosen for marriage; 'attractive' and flirtatious women are, despite their domestic unsuitability. When domestic suitability is considered by some men, it is done dispassionately and love does not seem to be a part of the matrimonial equation in this regard.  Never-the-less, Mildred is always keenly aware of everyone’s actions and questions their motives. She is an observer, as one of the characters points out, although our hopes are raised more than once that she might actually become a participant!

Although wise and inwardly witty, she lacks forcefulness and confidence and several times throughout the novel I felt like exclaiming to her, “Mildred, dear, put down the teapot and let’s have a little heart-to-heart!”. It annoyed me how people kept walking all over her and using her - especially the men - and always making assumptions about her future. This is reflective of the times when, after the World Wars, there was a surplus of women who would not marry due to there being a shortage of men. In those days, married women possessed a greater status than those who remained unmarried and spinsterhood was not a desirable state.

Although things have changed considerably, I feel that the novel and its themes are still very much relevant today. Human relationships and interactions remain essentially the same over the centuries and I can imagine a great number of Mildreds living in today’s more technologically advanced - though more socially detached - age. Such women (and indeed men) may not be stigmatised for being single but the awkward, shy, introverted individuals – who find it difficult to stand up for themselves and to express their own desires and dreams – are still out there.

I have another two Pym novels on my shelf and I shall certainly be reading them and more.  I understand that her heroines are mostly ensconced near vicarages and with ties to anthropology departments and that they are also spinsters... I am therefore curious as to how the other novels compare to this one, particularly if any of her heroines transcend the "excellent women" phase.

My next Virago Modern Classic for this week is Elizabeth Taylor's The Wedding Group and I hope to make a start on the lyrically and enticingly named Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis - I have never heard of this novel or author before so it will be a surprise!

Pop over to the Virago Reading Week host blogs for exciting posts and competitions.
Hosted by Carolyn and Rachel.


bookssnob said...

Fantastic review! I really enjoyed your thoughts on this. The surplus woman issue intrigues me and I find it very frustrating that so many wonderful, talented women were passed over and reduced to living small, 'useful' lives, just because they weren't married. Infuriating! But Barbara Pym's ironic wit makes such tales bearable. I'm so glad you enjoyed your first Pym!

verity said...

Pym is one of my favourites and I loved this novel.

fleurfisher said...

I keep meaning to pick this one up, and you have definitely inspired me.

And can I recommend Jane and Prudence - one is married and one not,and the contrast is interesting.

Deb said...

I came here via a link at Book Snob because I love Barbara Pym and periodically read all of her books. Although Pym doesn't have recurring characters in her books, from time to time characters in one novel pop up as minor characters in another and I distinctly recall in another Pym novel Everard Bone declining an invitation by saying, "Mildred has the flu," so obviously something happens there!

Anonymous said...

I too read and reread Barbara Pym novels and Excellent Women is one of my favourites. I don't want to give the game away for new readers, but Mildred is mentioned in two other books which tell us what happened to her next. There is a Barbara Pym Society that anyone can join, based at St. Hilda's College, Oxford (Pym's own college.)

Rochester Reader said...

Book Snob: thank you for the compliment. Oh yes, I was very pleased with Pym's prose. I can't stand reading novels that aren't "well written" or have stilted, short sentences. Her writing is beautiful and witty and I look forward to my next.

Verity: I hope she'll become a favourite of mine too. She is greatly loved in the blogosphere.

Fleur Fisher: Hi! Thanks for your suggestion. Funnily enough, I kept getting 'Jane' out of the library and thought that it would be my first but I never got around to reading it and had to return it :-( I need to acquire it again.

Deb: Hi and thank you for visiting my blog! Ooh, how exciting and sneaky! I had a feeling from the beginning of the novel that Everard might be the one she ended up with, and was hoping it would happen, but by the end of the novel I thought that he might not be worthy of her after all. I hope she got him in hand :-)

Anonymous: Welcome and thank you for visiting! I can't wait to read about Mildred again. I really liked her as a character, even if I did keep wanting to shake her and tell her to be more assertive :-) I'll be checking out the Society... thank you!

SuzeB said...

Loved your review of Excellent Women.

Yes, there is a Barbara Pym Society. We have conferences twice a year, in Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford, England. I've enjoyed the Cambridge conferences for 6 years (and one Oxford conference) and have made many wonderful friends. The next Pym conference will be in March of this year. Look up www.barbara-pym.org if you're interested.


JoAnn said...

Wonderful review! I read Excellent Women this week, too, and plan to read much more by Barbara Pym.

Rose said...

Excellent Women is my only Pym book so far - and I only picked it up because it had such a lovely cover (shallow? moi?). I enjoyed it but hadn't followed up - this review and all the follow-up comments make me think I might do some more digging.