The novels of Barbara Pym have fallen much out of fashion of late, and that is a tragedy – for we need her quiet wit. Mildred Lathbury, the heroine of Pym’s domestic comedy, Excellent Women, published in 1952, believes herself “capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale …,” and proves to be so by the end. Set in 1950’s England, it considers the lives of those women, labeled by the caddish Rockingham Napier as “excellent,” who have chosen (or been condemned to) the fate of remaining single.
It’s handy for selfish men like Rocky to have such capable helpmates around, such mother substitutes to cook his dinner, clean his flat, and intervene during those awkward little disputes with his wife that tend to scupper a man’s domestic bliss. Mildred finds herself requisitioned as his ‘Girl Friday.’ He assumes that because she is single and childless, she is at their beck and call. (How little has changed!). “I don’t know what I should do without you,” Rocky says, when Mildred once again brings common sense and a dishcloth to bear on his latest predicament, a comment to which Mildred replies in her mind, with a flash of impatience, “You do very well without me … and will continue to do well.”
Mildred’s friend Dora, too, has never married. They meet now and then, by force of habit rather than affection, to chit-chat about their love lives. “We lapsed into a comfortable silence,” describes Mildred. “It was a kind of fiction we always kept up, this not knowing anyone at the moment that we wanted to marry, as if there had been in the past and would be in the future.” Later, Dora and Mildred attend their old school reunion, that truly awful social custom devised to satisfy our nosiness about other people in exchange for exposing ourselves to scrutiny. After Mildred and Dora pass harsh judgment on their peers, Mildred reconsiders, “For after all, what had we done? We had not made particularly brilliant careers for ourselves, and, most important of all, we had neither of us married.”
Pym’s Mildred foreshadows other excellent women who had yet to appear in British literature, created by Anita Brookner, Penelope Fitzgerald or Muriel Spark, women who are single but not single-minded, matronly without being prudish, astutely perceptive about human nature but slow to act, and too wise to believe in an uncomplicated happily ever after – too wise to experience happiness without a tinge of melancholy.
Pym drops a couple of men in Mildred’s path, men with stony, phallic names. The dour Everard Bone (or was he just pleased to see her?), a dusty anthropologist whom Mildred thinks, “one might love secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.” She is also briefly distracted by the sensual charms of the dashing but witless Rocky, with whom she has a bantering conversation about the unsuitability of marrying an “excellent” woman. “You’re surely not suggesting,” says Rocky in reply, “that they are for the other things?” With this remark, the book dips directly into its strong undercurrent of sexual repression. In these 1950s single women, to remain “excellent,” apparently had to give up sex entirely. To content themselves with their knitting, as it were, for life, and although Mildred admits that they do have “normal” feelings, “nothing can be done about them.” And during one of the seemingly endless preparations for Church jumble sales, Mildred makes the most devastatingly unnerving remark of the whole novel. When someone suggests they pop the kettle on, she asks, “Do we need tea?”
“It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind,” because it calls into question all the rituals these single women (and single men) have constructed to get through their days, months, years. Let’s face it, many of us are not going to live wildly romantic and sexually fulfilling lives, so we make do (“pluckily,” as A. E. Wilson says in his intro) and build an edifice (teetering most likely but still upright), to get us through. (“Think no further than dinner or tea,”as John Bayley once said).
Excellent Women is only superficially old fashioned. Its comedy passes the test of time; and its concerns are still relevant. How do we choose to live? Should we take a partner and should we have children? What if we choose, or are unable, to do only one or neither? How do we derive meaning then, and what is our legacy, and at the end of the day, does it really matter?