Barbara Pym´s Excellent Women is set in London in the 1950s and narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her thirties. Mildred is one of those excellent gentle women who are always so helpful and always ready to pour tea. She leads a quite life one might say, with church, dinners at the vicarage and tea and boiled eggs, but one that she seems relatively happy with. However, when a young couple moves into the appartment beneath hers, she suddenly finds herself in the middle of lots of other people´s affairs and quite dramatic lives. It isn´t really that Mildred wants to help them sort out their affairs but she is so very capable and people seem to expect this from a spinster.
“I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say there is no hope for her.”
It´s very comical how Mildred goes from leading a quite, independent life to being in the middle of a lot of drama, all of which comes from other people. She has to try and negotiate the Napiers´ marriage, which is quite volatile because Helena has no interest in housework and order but instead focuses on her anthropological work, and the boring and serious anthropologist Everard Boone. And her husband Rockingham has only recently returned from duty in Italy where all he did (and still does) was to e charming. Of course there can only be tension with such a triangle, and especially Rocky and Helena seem to love the drama. Mildred finds herself in the middle of this triangle while each of these three people takes her into their confidence and needs her to do them a favour.
Apart from this, there is also trouble on the home-front so to speak. Mildred has long been friends with the vicar and his sister, but enter Allegra Gray, a beautiful widow who sets her eyes on the vicar and tries to foist his sister on Mildred. Now Mildred is pitied because everyone assumes she wanted to eventually marry him, and she is afraid that the sister will want to move into her appartment, and put an end to Mildred´s independence.
Pym introduces a lot of potential husbands for Mildred, from the charming Rocky to serious Everard Boone, but although Barbara Pym has been compared to Jane Austen, the ending Pym chooses for Mildred might surprise you. But the comparison does make sense in regard to their style of storytelling, the dry wit for example and sharp observation of people´s lives and manners.
I found Excellent Women to be an excellent book, and was pleasantly surprised that Pym manages to explore such themes as postwar England, the lives of unmarried women, and marriage, without making this a depressing and sad book. It is rather comfort reading, and that is mostly due to Pym´s description of everyday life, of small events instead of earth-shattering ones. I wish I had more of these novels, which are quiet, warm-hearted but also have some substance to it. And yes, I drank lots of tea while reading this one!
I can´t believe it has taken me this long to discover the delight of a Pym novel, but now I can hardly wait to read more by her. Any recommendations?
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