Thursday, 11 January 2018

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is one of those 'excellent women' who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, 'capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather'.

As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people's lives - especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest and most touching.

I have been aware of Barbara Pym as an author for some time but have never got around to sampling her work. So, when I recently read The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (click here for my review) he made mention of Barbara Pym as having fallen out of fashion, although she made something of a resurgence during the 1970's. However, reading his book gave me a little nudge to try one of her books which I already had on my shelf.

First published in 1952 this humorous book which is set in the Pimlico area of London is wonderful to read and provides the reader with a slice of English social history and a people gone by. It has a quintessentially English feel and I loved every word.

As a twenty-first century reader the blatant sexism is a little hard to swallow. The book would have been preceded by early feminism and the idea that a woman just over thirty is relegated to the life of lonely spinster who can only be an 'excellent woman' is ridiculous to our modern western eyes. However, as a piece of writing of it's time the author has written a wonderful comedy of manners and class that is just irresistible. I laughed many times whilst reading this book and if it is typical of Barbara Pym's writing then I want to read everything else she has written.

I also have to mention the edition that I read which has a very sound introduction by A.N. Wilson. I found my copy of this in a second-hand bookshop in Hungerford, Wiltshire a few months ago and it is such a beautiful edition that I want to share just a couple of photos with you. It is published by the Folio Society so comes in a lovely brown slip case. However, it is the cover and illustrations within by Debra McFarlane that are so exquisitely detailed that they enhanced my reading of this book and brought it to life. I have included an extract from the first page of this book so that you will get a little flavour of the joy of reading this fine novel.

I highly recommend this novel and feel it is one that I may well read again. I am very inclined towards trying some of her other works too. Have you read anything by Barbara Pym and if so what do you recommend that I should read next?

ISBN:  978 1844084517

Publisher:  Virago


Chapter One

"Ah, you ladies!" Always on the spot when there's something happening!" The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door.
   "New people moving in? The presence of a furniture van would seem to suggest it, " he went on pompously. "I expect you know all about it."
   "Well, yes, one usually does," I said feeling rather annoyed at his presumption. "It is rather difficult not to know such things."
   I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one one might really say that there is no hope for her.
   "Well, well, tempus fugit" as the poet says," called out Mr Mallett as he hurried on.
   I had to agree that it did, but I dawdled long enough to see the furniture men set down a couple of chairs on the pavement, and as I walked up the stairs to my flat I heard the footsteps, of a person in the empty rooms below me, pacing about on the bare boards, deciding where each piece should go.
   Mrs Napier, I thought, for I had noticed a letter addressed to somebody of that name, marked 'To Await Arrival'. But now that she had materialsed I felt, perversely, that I did not want to see her, so I hurried into my own rooms and began tidying out my kitchen.
   I met her for the first time by the dustbins, later that afternoon. The dustbins were in the basement and everybody in the house shared them. There were offices on the ground floor and above them the two flats, not properly self-contained and without every convenience. "I have to share a bathroom," I had so often murmured, almost with shame, as if I personally had been found unworthy of a bathroom of my own.
   I bent low over the bin and scrabbled a few tea leaves and potato peelings out of the bottom of my bucket. I was embarrassed that we should meet like this. I had meant to ask Mrs Napier to coffee one evening. It was to have been a gracious, civilised occasion, with my best coffee cups and biscuits on little silver dishes. And now here I was standing awkwardly in my oldest clothes, carrying a bucket and a waste-paper.

About the author:

After studying English at St Hilda's College, Oxford, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. 

The turning point for Pym came with a famous article in the Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, nominated her as the most underrated writer of the century. Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence over a period of many years. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another novel, The Sweet Dove Died, previously rejected by many publishers, was subsequently published to critical acclaim, and several of her previously unpublished novels were published after her death.

Pym worked at the International African Institute in London for some years, and played a large part in the editing of its scholarly journal, Africa, hence the frequency with which anthropologists crop up in her novels. She never married, despite several close relationships with men, notably Henry Harvey, a fellow Oxford student, and the future politician, Julian Amery. After her retirement, she moved into Barn Cottage at Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister, Hilary, who continued to live there until her death in February 2005. A blue plaque was placed on the cottage in 2006. The sisters played an active role in the social life of the village.

Several strong themes link the works in the Pym "canon", which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, with excessive significance being attached to social activities connected with the Anglican church (in particular its Anglo-Catholic incarnation). However, the dialogue is often deeply ironic, and a tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.

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