Barbara Pym’s “Little Lives” of EXCELLENT WOMEN (1952)

“And our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Excellent_WomenThe Bard’s wonderful reference to life and death, rest and completion went through my head reading Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. Though Pym’s novel is no memento mori, it is about the smallness of its characters’ lives, the “excellent women” of the margins, the spinsters who decorate the church altar, run the jumble sale, brew and serve the tea, butter the crumpets. They are the world’s unmarried, unloved, plain-Janes. Now I’m of the opinion the spinster’s life should be lived with élan and that is definitely lacking in Pym’s spinsters, “excellent women” though they be. There is nothing celebratory in the excellent women’s lives she depicts; though, at times, to give credit where it’s due, her women are acerbic, subtly angry, and embracing of their singlehood. The narrator’s voice, Mildred Lathbury’s, the main excellent woman, was too self-deprecating to satisfy this feral spinster. There were some wonderful moments when Mildred kicks against the pricks (pun intended) worth the mild annoyance with which I read much of Pym’s novel.

We are introduced to Mildred when her life’s calm sea is set to ripple. Pym is not a writer of waves, but of ripples of change and disturbance in what are lives not of quiet desperation, just quiet. Mildred has new neighbours and, as she shares a bathroom with them, she takes an interest in who they are and what they’re like. The Napiers are an incompatible, superficial pair and they bring discord into Mildred’s life, with their rocky marriage (the husband’s nickname is Rocky, as a matter of fact). Rocky’s a womanizer and yet whines Helena doesn’t keep house well. Helena, an anthropologist engrossed in her work and in love with Everard Bone, her colleague, is surly and abrupt. I didn’t like any of them. But Mildred did make a good initial impression for having reacted as I would at the sight of new neighbours: “But now that she had materialised I felt, perversely, that I did not want to see her, so I hurried into my own rooms and began tidying out my kitchen.” As an inveterate tidy-er and avoider of persons, I could get behind this heroine. I’m also a great believer in the indulgence of perverse dislike.

I may have had vestigial HEA-desire when I started Excellent Women. But an early sentence told me exactly what I was getting, as Mildred warns: “Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.” Pym draws her great narrative line in the sand: her first person narrator is Jane-reversed, an anti-Jane. But in reversing, Pym still aligns herself in that tradition. There may be no “Reader, I married him” ending, but Mildred, like Jane, grapples with the moral choices put before her. No mad woman in the attic figures and Mildred’s plainness isn’t vindicated, her voice remains self-denigrating, but it is, like Jane’s, a voice of integrity, a voice that stays true to her small self. Pym is clear about her world, characters, and concerns: “I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us — the small unpleasantness rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love-affairs of history or fiction.” I can’t help but feel that the latter is a tiny, fatal stab at romance. But I cannot hold an author to account for what she so explicitly and elegantly intends.

Mildred’s small self and small life is yet one that a feral spinster, an excellent woman, as Austen’s Miss Bates is, Pym-like, asserts a spinster-ish life style that is deeply satisfying, orderly, self-contained, and ever aware of the financial precariousness that marks every solitary woman’s life: “I looked forward to being alone once more, [Mildred’s best friend and roommate, Dora, has found work outside of London] to living a civilised life with a bedroom and a sitting-room and a spare room for friends … I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to. I did part-time work at an organisation which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near and dear to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.” Maybe married women may need “a room of one’s own,” Mrs. Woolf, but a spinster needs at least three to relish her fussiness in full.

Pym redeems whatever dislike I had for her characters with bits like these: “As I moved about the kitchen getting out china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone.” As an excellent woman with noisy neighbours (WHY CAN’T PEOPLE ENJOY MONASTIC SILENCE THESE DAYS?), I heartily nodded to Mildred’s night-time comment: “I hope the Napiers were not going to keep late hours and have noisy parties. Perhaps I was getting spinsterish and ‘set’ in my ways, but I was irritated at having been woken.” Hear, hear! (I have neighbours who had a baby and, still after two years, the wailing and screaming and whining wake me up … gah, here I am, a spinster-proud, awakened nightly by infant mewling and squalling.)

If there is one thing that Pym absolutely gets right, it’s the pre-feral state of spinsterhood called obligation, the “good girl” urge to make everything right, smooth it over, volunteer to save the day, sacrifice your indifference on the altar of your failure to marry and beget: “I was by now in a state of considerable confusion and wished that Everard would make some attempt to lead the conversation into normal channels, though I realised that this would probably be quite impossible. It occurred to me that I had been bearing the full burden of the evening, and at half-past nine I began to feel both tired and resentful and decided that I would go home.” First, HURRAH to “half-past nine,” that is my abandon-evening call, I won’t go beyond it, otherwise, like Mildred, I become unpleasant and resentful and so so tired.

Why should Mildred carry the burden of the evening? She is a young spinster, by today’s standards, a tad over thirty, and I’m happy to say that the aged spinster, her ferality ensured by her 50+ achievement, is divested of any urge to carry the burden of an evening. For poor Mildred, she is yet the Martha to the Mary she can become if she holds onto her spinsterhood: “I had to admit that no one had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha, who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink. Martha’s back must have ached too, I thought grimly, noticing that the plate-rack needed scrubbing and the tea-cloths boiling.” Rest assured, Mildred, fuss can turn feral.

There is one bit in Pym’s Excellent Women whose price is above rubies, a defining feral-spinster-in-the-making liminal moment. Mildred is alone with the two men who anyone would assume would be desirable to her, would think how sad her plainness doesn’t give her a chance of nabbing either in matrimony: “It was unusual, certainly, for me to be alone with two men even when each of them was the property of some other woman, but I could not make anything of the opportunity.” I howled with laughter. What a glorious put-down, what assertion, how subtly sharp and dismissive. It almost made up for the self-belittling Mildred remarks I endured throughout. Mildred comes close, but draws back: “The truth was … I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens as the nobler language of our great hymn-writers put it. Then, too, I had become selfish and set in my ways and would surely be a difficult person to live with.” A noble aspiration, Mildred.

Thankfully, Pym peppers her novel with a few true feral spinsters. There’s Sister Blatt, snarky and sarcastic; she reads the world from the height of getting to the heart of human beings’ capacity to be petty and evil. Miss Clovis, who exemplifies the ideal life, the promised land Mildred hasn’t glimpsed: ” ‘You put yourself too much in other people’s places,’ said Helena. ‘I believe she [a widowed acquaintance she shares with Mildred] is quite happy pottering about her garden and reading novels.’ ” Ironically, despite this statement, Helena takes the feckless Rocky back after they separate.

In the end, though Mildred achieves a modicum of life on her terms, it feels more as if this is by luck than will. And I could never recover from, or forgive her, the smallness of her meals. Why must she forever be eating slapdash meals of wilted lettuce, dried cheese, or pieces of flavourless fish. I get that post-war England rationed and good food wasn’t easy to come by, but why does every meal Mildred recounts have to speak of indifference, a bland testament to Mildred’s circumspect life? Even when she indulges, not in food, but a bouquet of mimosa, she forgets it in the Napiers’ apartment and when it’s recovered, wilted, it has lost its charm for her. I wanted Mildred to enjoy something: her clothes are worn; her meals are boring. Yet, there’s an anger, energy, and snark to Mildred: I have feral hopes for her.

4 thoughts on “Barbara Pym’s “Little Lives” of EXCELLENT WOMEN (1952)

  1. Such an interesting review! Have you ever read _The Innocents_ by Margery Sharp? I think the main character is a feral spinster who would appeal to you.


  2. I read this a few years ago and enjoyed the quotidian aspects of the novel. I really really enjoyed Pym’s Jane and Prudence (think I wrote about it on the blog too). Oh and in Jane and Prudence, there’s a reference that Mildred does indeed end up marrying Everard!

    I think I might go back to trying out a few more Pym stories!


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