There is a Cannonballer out there, whose name I cannot remember, who is a big Barbara Pym fan. Perhaps it’s multiple Cannonballers? Not sure. Anyway, Pym’s name has come up many times over the Cannonballs, and a few weeks ago, I found Excellent Women for $2 at a bookstore’s going out of business sale. While that is sad news (especially as it’s the closest bookstore to my home), the $2 turns out to have been the best investment I’ve made in a long time. This book was an unexpected delight and might get me on board the Pym bandwagon.
Excellent Women is a comic novel a la Jane Austen featuring a woman named Mildred Lathbury who is 30 and single in London circa 1950. She is one of the “excellent women,” i.e., the single women who seem destined to remain single and who are the backbone of their churches and communities. Mildred works for an agency that supports “gentlewomen” who have fallen on hard times. She is the only child of a minister, and both of her parents are deceased. Her closest friends are Winifred Malory and Winifred’s brother Julian, who is the minister of the church Mildred attends. Julian is 40-ish and single, and seems destined to remain so; Winifred lives with him and takes care of the household as well as serving as another excellent woman. Mildred, Winifred and the other ladies keep the church in order, manage the jumbles and attend services regularly. Mildred, who is the center of the story and our narrator, lives just down the way from the church in a flat above a storefront. There is some excitement as the novel opens, as Mildred is about to get new neighbors in the flat just below hers, and since they will share a common bathroom (a source of some discomfort for Mildred), they are bound to get to know one another.
Enter Helena Napier, a young woman who is not in any way one of the “excellent women” and has zero interest in becoming one. Helena is an anthropologist, caught up in her research with fellow scholar Everard Bone. Helena is also married to Rockingham Napier, aka Rocky, a handsome naval attaché on his way home from Italy where he spent time charming “wrens,” i.e., young women in the British navy. Helena is not interested housekeeping, philanthropy or church-going, so she and Mildred have nothing to talk about, but once Rocky arrives home, Mildred seems to get drawn more and more into their world whether she wants to or not. Rocky, friendly and charming, drops in for coffee and is generally engaging and pleasant, and when he and Helena have a falling out, Rocky relies heavily on Mildred to help him get through the ordeal.
Meanwhile, Mildred’s friendship with the Malorys is tested by the arrival of a young widow, Allegra Gray. Allegra, who had been married to a minister, rents space in the Malory’s home, and rather than become an “excellent woman,” it would appear that she hopes to become Mrs. Malory. This is the cause of much gossip amongst the church-goers, as some are scandalized by Allegra’s behavior and others assume that Mildred must be devastated not to be the object of Julian’s attentions.
Mildred is fascinating to watch as she deals with the various people encroaching on her quiet, mundane life. She does find Rocky charming, but she is always aware that he is married and has made a lifelong habit of charming women; Mildred is not special. Julian has always been just a friend, and while she has no romantic feeling for him, she wonders if perhaps she ought to have pursued a relationship with him. And then there’s Everard Bone, the scholar who seems somewhat supercilious but who, unlike the Napiers, attends church services and occasionally seeks out Mildred.
I really like Mildred because she is not obsessed with having a relationship with a man. She is even-keeled and level headed. Her relationships with other women such as Winifred and her friend Dora are important to her and worth the effort to maintain. Mildred also is able to step back from situations and see the humor in them, such as when Rocky is despondent over Helena. Mildred suspects she is getting the reputation for always being ready with the tea kettle, and that Rocky will probably forget her one day soon. This detachment though may prevent Mildred from seeing romantic possibilities before her very eyes.
I find Pym’s writing to be delightful. She is able to describe a room full of people and their dysfunctional (and hilarious) interactions with great detail and dialog. Mildred’s visit to the anthropological society and her meeting with Everard’s mother stand out particularly. Pym also provides wonderful detail about religion and the little prejudices and rivalries that exist between high and low church and between Catholic and Protestant. And it’s all done in a charming and humorous way. I look forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s novels.