Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Many years ago I read several of Barbara Pym's novels - at this point I couldn't even tell you which ones. What I do remember is that I thought them clever but superficial, a little dreary, and in the end not really the kind of books that I wanted to read. Lately though I've been seeing posts about her books, like Anbolyn's on Gudrun's Tights, which made me think it was time to try them again. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss them, or maybe I would read them very differently all these years later. When I found copies of Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings at Half Price Books, it seemed like book fate.
The first time I started Excellent Women, I didn't take to it immediately, in fact I set it aside and went on to read other things. But when I came back to it, this time I was very quickly caught up in the story of Mildred Lathbury, one of the excellent women of the title and its narrator. She lives by herself in a flat in a quiet part of London, where she moved after the death of her parents. A clergyman's daughter, she is used to coping with the events of life, large and small. With a comfortable income, she does not need to work, but she has a part-time job with an organization that helps distressed gentlewomen. She gives much of her spare time to her parish, St Mary's, where she is friends with the vicar Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, who keeps house for him.
As the story opens, it is shortly after the end of the Second World War, and new neighbors are moving into the flat below Mildred's. She meets first Helena Napier, whose husband Rockingham is still in the Navy. Helena announces that she is an anthropologist, at work on an important project. She is not even there the night that Rockingham Napier arrives at their flat, and it is Mildred who welcomes him to his new home. With Helena caught up in her work, and in her colleague Everard Bone, her husband, handsome and charming, makes Mildred his confidant, turning to her for tea and sympathy. In time both Helena and Everard do as well. The arrival of the Napiers disrupts her quiet life, with its familiar rounds of work and church, evenings with the Malorys and church festivals, in ways sometimes exciting, sometimes troubling.
I found Mildred an interesting and sympathetic character, in part of course because she is telling her story. She gives us not just the events, but her own thoughts and feelings, even the negative ones. She has made herself a comfortable life on her own terms, and if it isn't precisely her ideal life, she doesn't spend a lot of time repining. She would like to be married, but she isn't willing to marry just for the sake of marriage, and she seems to see clearly the faults and foibles of the various men she meets, though she is equally honest about her own. She has more patience than I would in listening to people talk about themselves and in making them cups of tea or little meals - and she really listens, with interest and sympathy, which is rarer than people realize. Like most good listeners, however, she sometimes has a hard time making herself heard.
I've often seen Barbara Pym compared to Jane Austen, and I can certainly see why with this book. Though it is set in London, it is really about a small community within the city, centered in the neighborhood and around the parish. There are the different levels of their society, which can meet over decorating the church or a jumble sale, but not mix. There are the disruptions to that community that come with new arrivals, like an alluring widow who moves into a flat in the vicarage, and there is the communal interest in news, particularly in matrimonial prospects. Unlike Austen's heroines, of course, Mildred lives on her own and has a job, even if it is only part-time. She used to share the flat with a friend, who has recently moved out to take a job teaching, and she very much enjoys her freedom and her space - something I understand very well! Again unlike Jane Austen, Pym gives us a rather ambiguous ending. I think she is suggesting that Mildred may indeed marry, though with the two prospects she has in view, I would still vote for the quiet flat on my own. I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. But if I can't have more of Mildred's story, I have Barbara Pym's other books to look forward to.