“The truth was, I thought, looking once more at the letter on my desk which could not now be finished tonight, that I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens as the nobler language of our great hymn-writers put it.”
I had planned to read a few Virago books as part of ‘All Virago August’ but other reading commitments have made it virtually impossible. However, I did manage to sneak in a quick read of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. I bought the Virago hardback copy, with cover by Orla Kiely, a little while ago but, as usual, it languished on the shelf looking pretty and unread for some time. Well, shame on me. When I picked up Excellent Women I did so without enthusiasm, yet soon found myself enrapt, unable to put it down. It was a joy to read.
Excellent Women tells the story of Mildred, a middle-aged single woman (spinster) of independent means. She is an ‘excellent woman’ as of the title, a woman who is capable, dependable, upon whom people – usually couples or the clergy – can rely. A woman perceived as being without a life of her own, but instead devoted to a life of virtuous service. The women who run the church jumble sales, who arrange the flowers, who make tea by the bucket load and are always available as a friendly ear in a time of need. At the start of the novel Mildred is settled into a routine life which involves a part-time job and largely revolves around the local church. She lives in an apartment by herself, though we learn she formerly shared this with a friend, Dora. Much of Mildred’s life is bland and predictable, until some new neighbours move in. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, moves in first, soon followed by her charming husband Rockingham, or Rocky as he is known. Before Rocky’s return from charming ‘Wrens in ill-fitting suits’ in the Adriatic, Mildred encounters Helena with another man, fellow anthropologist Everard Bone. All three become entwined in Mildred’s life. The Napier’s marriage is rocky (no pun intended); Helena is ever-so-slightly in love with Everard Bone and Rocky, most likely, is ever-so-slightly in love with his own charm.
Separately to the Napiers, Mildred has a long-term friendship with the Mallorys. Julian Mallory is the local clergy, Winifred his sister and they live together at the rectory. All are unmarried and profess to want to be so, but things change when Julian meets the widow Allegra Gray and invites her to rent their loft room. When Julian and Allegra become engaged, Mildred starts to understand that the way she sees herself and her relationships is quite different to how the people around her do. Both her involvement with the meteoric Napiers, and the evolving fortunes of Julian and Winifred, cause Mildred to look again at her life, at her desires. She is, as she recognises in the quotation above, a quite put-upon woman.
Excellent Women is a funny book; Pym has a dry, lightly-sarcastic humour which pervades the whole book. Mildred, whilst slightly pathetic in some ways, is quite self-aware and, it seems, desires to be something other than an ‘excellent woman’. The following quote is a good example of the self-deprecating humour which runs through the book:
“’It sounds almost as if you have fallen in love with him,’ said Julian teasingly, ‘if he has made such a favourable first impression.’
‘Oh, that’s ridiculous!’ I protested. ‘I’ve only met him once and he’s probably younger than I am. Besides, he’s a married man.’
‘I’m very glad to hear you say that, Mildred,’ said Julian more seriously. ‘So many people nowadays seem to forget that it should be a barrier.’
‘Now, Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”
Mildred lives her little life, livened at times by the Napiers and the Mallorys. She is content and yet she desires something more. Yet she cannot help being an excellent woman. It is not a book in which a great deal happens, yet it is amusing and enlightening to read and presents, in many ways, a life we can recognise even if times have changed and some of the details seem a little dated. It is mannered at times, but perfectly in tune with itself as a book. Consequently I thundered through it, chuckling to myself and hoping for Mildred’s escape from a slightly suffocating world that still, somehow, seems to suit her. Excellent Women makes an excellent read, my first by Barbara Pym but not, I suspect, my last.