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, and butter the crumpets. They are the world’s unmarried, unloved, plain-Janes. Now I’m of the opinion that 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) that were worth the mild annoyance with which I read much of Pym’s novel. Continue reading