Thursday, March 21, 2013

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women combines acute social observation with a subtle yet pervading sense of humour, creating a fictional world that highlights life’s many limitations and accepts them.

Excellent Women was English novelist Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. It concerns the minutiae of village life – church jumble sales, going to the shops, and most important of all, the uninspiring yet close-knit relationships of the local residents. The title, as you’d expect, is ironic. The ‘excellent women’ are the dependable females who can be trusted to step in and perform dull menial tasks when called. They’re very much the backbone of this small society, but are taken for granted and not highly valued, despite their essential nature.

The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, a thirty-something single woman, who seems to have wholly discounted the notion of ever marrying.  There’s no anger or resentment at this state of affairs, just a bland, disinterested resignation to the fact. Mildred Lathbury is past romantic illusions (if indeed she ever had any) and practical enough to see that matrimony would more than likely mean extra mundane chores – cooking and cleaning and secretarial support for professional male careers.

There’s no dazzling plot developments in Excellent Women. The most dramatic thing that happens is the break-up of a marriage, but that is pretty soon patched up. The marriages and prospective marriages in Excellent Women are pretty flavourless and workman like in their nature. The single women – of which there are plenty – seem to have a (slightly) more interesting time of it.

What, alas, is there then to recommend Barbara Pym’s ‘much ado about nothing’ novel. She seems to be unique in her attitude to accepting life as primarily about dull practical matters, and putting this as a central theme of her fiction. Other novelists generally try to make some central, transcendental point in their fiction. The reader has an epiphany as some great piece of wisdom is revealed. In Pym’s fiction, the great revelation is that there is none. In both Quartet in Autumn and Excellent Women (the two novels I have read), each ends with a little joke about how life seems to promise so many interesting prospects, when in fact the main characters have none whatsoever. It may sound strange to say it, but for some reason when as I read Barbara Pym the work of Charles Bukowski keeps coming to mind. Of course they’re polar opposites, yet both are devoted to chronicling life as essentially anti-climatic.

There are two main qualities that recommend Pym’s fiction. Firstly is the observational nature of the writing. Close, long-term and even fleeting relationships are examined in fine detail, giving much of the prose a warm and human feeling. You really sink comfortably into Excellent Women, like a favourite, well-worn chair, and soon become so involved with the characters, so eager after their progress, that you dread finishing the book. Secondly, there is Pym’s subtle yet pervasive sense of humour. Like Jane Austen, she is also a relentlessly ironic writer.

For example, we read:

"Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing."

How true! My favourite joke comes when Mildred Lathbury enters a pub and finds an elderly barmaid:

"I could not call her a barmaid, for she was elderly and of a prim appearance. I felt she probably cleaned the brasses in St Ermin’s when she wasn’t polishing the handles of the beer pumps."

Or there is this rather funny line. One wonders whether it is a spoof on Virginia Woolf?

"My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink."

As mentioned above, the world of Excellent Women was one I was very sad to leave. Her bungling and eccentric characters, all struggling for nothing much in particular, seem to exemplify Pym’s view that life is anything but a grand narrative. More likely it is something to be bravely endured, without complaint, taking the smallest of pleasures when they occasionally present themselves.

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9781844085262  RRP: $27.00