Thursday, 2 May 2013

BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)

Penguin Classics UK, 2006

I felt that I had made a slight advance, that an infinitesimal amount of virtue had gone out of me, and although I did not really like him I did not feel as actively hostile to him as I had before.  But how was it possible to compare him with Rocky?  All the same, I told myself sternly, it would not do to go thinking about Rocky like this.  Yesterday, with the unexpected spring weather and the wine at luncheon there had perhaps been some excuse; today there was none.  The grey March day, the hurried unappetising meal and the alarming sermon made it more suitable that I should think of the stream of unattractive humanity in the cafeteria, the Judgment Day, even Everard Bone.

The NovelIt's not difficult to see why English poet and novelist Philip Larkin rated the work of Barbara Pym so highly.  Like so much of Larkin's best and most affecting work, Pym's novels are set in a drab, socially restricted, completely unfashionable England still recovering from World War Two and yet to define the identity that would make it the cultural epicentre of what came to be known 'the Swinging 60s.'  Theirs is an England in which a person does what's expected of them without making a fuss about it, finding their reward, if any, for these 'small duties well done' in commensurately small pleasures – a fine spring day, the sight of cut flowers standing in a vase on the mantelpiece, a slice of freshly-baked cake waiting to be eaten with one's tea.  Larkin's famous statement –– 'deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth' –– could easily be applied to the shabby-genteel world of Mildred Lathbury, the heroine of Excellent Women.  While the book is very funny, filled with the sort of insightful observational comedy that would have done Jane Austen proud, it also examines emotions –– loneliness, longing, doubt – which can be surprising to encounter in what purports to be an 'amusingly light' work of art.  Like Larkin, Pym had an eye for the seemingly insignificant but ultimately telling detail that was as accurate as it could be unsentimentally heartbreaking.

Mildred – and she is always 'Mildred' to her friends and acquaintances, never the more cosily familiar 'Millie' –– is a clergyman's daughter in her early thirties who lives alone in a tiny flat (with a shared bathroom) in the London suburb of Pimlico and works part-time for an organisation which strives to improve the lives of 'impoverished gentlewomen.'  Her own life is hardly what anyone would call exciting.  Apart from the 'gentlewomen' she meets in the course of doing her job, Mildred's only social contacts are a few old friends like her bossy school chum Dora Caldicote and 'new' friends like Julian Malory, vicar of the local High Anglican church she regularly attends, and the bumbling vicar's highly eccentric sister Winifred.  Like Winifred, Mildred is considered to be one of the church's 'excellent women' by Malory and his flock –– someone who can always be relied upon to serve on fundraising committees, help with altar cleaning and run the annual jumble sale which is its most important source of supplemental revenue.

Mildred seldom if ever bemoans her dull and rather tedious lot in life.  She has her work, her religion and her little diversions – knitting, reading, cleaning her flat while she listens to music on the radio – to keep her physically if not always mentally and socially occupied.  Both her parents are dead and she has never married, telling herself, whenever this fact threatens to depress her, that she's too 'set in her ways now' to be capable of sharing her life with another person even if that special someone did, by some miracle, happen to cross her path.  Her life is drab, yes, but it is her life, and nobody else's, to do with as she pleases.  Excitement, she feels, is an overrated quality and not something intended for the likes of plain old her.

This belief is soon put to the test, however, when a young married couple named Helena and Rockingham (Rocky to his friends) Napier move into the flat below hers.  Although Helena and Rocky seem to be exactly the sort of people who would not welcome a reticent churchgoing spinster like Mildred into their lives – Helena is an anthropologist, while Rocky has just left the Navy and a glamorous posting in Italy – this is precisely what happens.  The Napiers' marriage is not a  harmonious one – they met and married in a rush during the war, when reckless behaviour was more or less the norm –– and Mildred soon finds herself drawn into their ongoing domestic squabbles, offering each of them a convenient shoulder to cry on and a steady if often perplexed source of tea and sympathy.  

The addition of Helena's friend Everard Bone –– a handsome, sometimes dismissive fellow anthropologist who also happens to be a regular churchgoer –– to the mix only exacerbates the couple's already serious marital problems.  Are Helena and Everard having an affair?  Is that why Helena left their flat and fled back home to her mother?  And what of Mildred's own feelings for the charming if rather superficial, Victoriana-collecting Rocky?  Is she in danger of falling in love with a married man?  Surely not.  Her role in life is to be an 'excellent woman,' and excellent women do not have affairs, particularly not with handsome, already married men.  They make them tea and a good solid lunch when they're feeling upset or neglected, tidy their messy flats for them, write letters on their behalf to their estranged wives –– making entirely prosaic arrangements for the removal of furniture and the collection of their personal belongings –– while the men themselves get on with the tricky business of settling into life in their newly-rented country cottages.

Yet meeting the Napiers seems to imply that Mildred is on her way to encountering many other potentially life-altering experiences.  Everard Bone almost seems to be showing a romantic interest in her and her friend Julian –– a man who seemed as resigned to a life of celibacy as she was, hence their mutual inability to view each other as potential life partners –– surprises everyone by falling in love with and then proposing to his beautiful new upstairs lodger, the widow Allegra Gray.  Winifred is initially delighted by this news, then distressed by it.  What will become of her when her brother marries Mrs Gray?  Where will she live if Julian and Allegra don't want her sharing the vicarage with them?  The choice seems obvious.  She must move in with Mildred.  Mrs Gray actually suggests this to Mildred after inviting her to lunch one day.  Women like Mildred and Winifred should live together, she all but insists, because they're both single and will no doubt remain single for the rest of their mediocre and rather silly lives.

What Mrs Gray fails to take into account, as does everyone else who takes Mildred's kindness and competence for granted, are her own feelings about the matter.  (While she values Winifred's friendship, Mildred is also honest enough to recognise that her friend 'might be a very irritating person to live with.')  Like the Napiers, Julian and the equally cowardly Everard Bone, Mildred's domineering school chum Dora and Dora's stuffy bachelor brother William, Mrs Gray is incapable of accepting Mildred as an individual, possessed of individual thoughts, feelings and desires.  Mrs Gray can only see her as a dependable, perpetually available convenience, a kind of human dustbin into which everybody else's problems can be neatly and easily swept any time they feel the urge to psychologically unburden themselves. 

New American Library, 1991
Excellent Women is often described as 'a comedy of manners' and it certainly is that –– a novel every bit as satirical, in its way, as the early work of Pym's contemporary Kingsley Amis or, before him, Evelyn Waugh.  As with all the best satirists, Pym combines humour with unsparing realism to create a picture of English post-war life that's occasionally as painful to revisit as it is, in other respects, subtly if unapologetically damning.  Like Anne Elliott in Persuasion and nearly all of Shakespeare's heroines (think of Portia and Cordelia and what they're obliged to do to please the foolish, self-centred men who need to believe they run their lives for them), Mildred is a superior individual who finds herself dragged into the problems of those less clever, less capable and less compassionate than herself, all of whom quickly become utterly dependent on her without necessarily attempting (or even wishing) to show her the same consideration in return.  Mildred's world is amusing, honest and remarkably free of self-pity but it's also a thankless and very lonely world at times, defined and constricted by its deadening lack of variety, financial werewithal and any form of uplifting social or sexual interaction, where even the meals she eats are consistently awful and the idea of buying an off-the-rack dress from a department store appears, to her mind, to be a wasteful extravagance.   

Life, Pym asks us to consider, is mostly about wanting what we can't have and settling for what, in Mildred's case, we're given.  That, I believe, goes a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of a novel like Excellent Women.  Its comedy is grounded in reality, its satire based on life as it was (and still is) lived by vast numbers of people whose luck has abandoned them or was never really present to any great degree to begin with.  Times have changed, the world has certainly marched on, but there are still plenty of Mildred Lathburys out there, living solitary, largely unnoticed lives in flats and bedsits while they stoically get on with the job of caring for the sick, the elderly and the otherwise neglected.

BARBARA PYM, c. 1970
The Writer:  Philip Larkin's 1977 essay The World of Barbara Pym ends with the sentence: 'And when they [ie. her books] come to be properly reprinted, as they inevitably will, what better epigraph for them than the reflection of the luckless Tom Mallow: "He marvelled, as he had done before, at the sharpness of even the nicest women"?'  Larkin's prediction turned out to be more prescient than even he may have realised.  All of Pym's work is now back in print, including two novels which never saw the light of day during her lifetime and an autobiography, based on her private diaries, titled A Very Private Eye –– no mean feat for a writer who had to wait sixteen years between the publication of her sixth and seventh novels because she and her style were deemed 'too old-fashioned' by the short-sighted blowhards who ran British publishing in the youth-obsessed 1960s.

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born on 2 June 1913 in the Shropshire town of Oswestry.  Her mother served as organist for the local parish church, which brought her and her younger sister Hilary (born in 1916) into almost daily contact with the vicars, curates and ordinary Anglican faithful who would one day serve as models for so many of her future characters.  She wrote her first novel –– an unpublished work inspired by Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow titled Young Men in Fancy Dress –– at the age of sixteen and left Shropshire two years later to attend Oxford University, where she read English Literature and soon fell in love with a fellow student named Henry Harvey.  

Pym and Harvey did not marry – she would never marry, despite having serious romantic relationships with several different men throughout her life –– and she returned to Oswestry after gaining a second class honors degree.  It was here, in 1934 or early 1935, that she began writing the first version of what would eventually become her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle.  Success did not come to Pym quickly or easily.  Her manuscript was periodically revised and re-submitted to publishers throughout the 1930s while she worked on a second, also unpublished novel called Crampton HodnetNever one to give up easily, she was still revising both books when war broke out in September 1939.

Pym was initially assigned to work in the Censorship Office in Bristol, where she remained until she volunteered for the Women's Royal Naval Service (allegedly to escape an unhappy love affair).  She was posted to the Italian city of Naples in 1944, where she served until the end of the war, all the while jotting down her memories, observations and impressions of those she had met at home and during her stint in the Navy.  (One of the male officers she met in Italy served as the model for Rockingham Napier in Excellent Women.)  These wartime diaries would later go on to provide much of the background detail for her novels.  

After the war she returned to England, sharing a flat in the London suburb of Pimlico with her sister while she worked at the International African Institute and sub-edited Africa, that organisation's official anthropological journal.  During this period Pym continued to revise Some Tame Gazelle and attempted to supplement her income by writing stories and articles, unsuccessfully, for various British-based women's magazines.  To her everlasting surprise, the revised version of her novel was accepted by the firm of Jonathon Cape in 1949 and published, to favourable reviews, the following year.

Pym went on to publish five more novels –– Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, Less Than Angels, A Glass of Blessings and No Fond Return of Love –– between 1952 and 1961, many of which featured recurring characters or otherwise related settings and situations.  While never a bestselling author, her work was admired and respected for its concision, forthrightness and very English sense of humour, making her one of the best-kept if least read 'secrets' in post-war Anglo-American literature.  Her sixth novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by her publisher, who deemed it 'too old-fashioned' for what, by then, was seen as being a younger and therefore much more 'sophisticated' book buying public.  Pym revised the novel but was crushed when it was once again rejected, not only by Cape but also by every other English publisher she offered it to.  This saw the beginning of what was to be a sixteen year hiatus in her career, during which she was unable to get any of her new work published and none of her earlier work reprinted.  

But she did not, as many lesser writers would have done, stop writing.  Although she feared that her style of novel would never become fashionable again, she produced a new novel called The Sweet Dove Died, based in part of her relationship with Richard Roberts, an antique dealer seventeen years her junior.  Like its predecessor, this darker, more 'modern' novel was also rejected by Cape and many other British publishers, as was her next novel Quartet in Autumn, another 'dark' work focusing on the romantic entanglements of four office workers, two of whom –– like the author herself – are facing the disquieting prospect of retirement.  (Pym kept her job at the International African Institute throughout her writing career, eventually retiring from the organisation in 1974 following a mastectomy and suffering a minor but thankfully not debilitating stroke.)

BARBARA PYM, c. 1977
Pym's fortunes did not improve until January 1977, when the essay by Philip Larkin, calling her 'the most underrated novelist of the century,' appeared in The Times Literary Supplement alongside an article by Lord David Cecil, eminent English historian and literary critic, which praised her work in similarly glowing terms.  Their combined efforts were enough, it seems, to make the publishing world re-think its negative attitude towards her and her still-unpublished novels.  Quartet in Autumn was published by Macmillan later that year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  (Pym did not win the prize, the money ultimately going to Paul Scott for his novel Staying On.  It probably came as no surprise to anyone that she'd been nominated for it, given that Larkin served as chairman of its 1977 prize-awarding committee.  Larkin and Pym became pen-pals following the publication of his essay and occasionally met for meals when their respective schedules permitted them to do so.)  Macmillan subsequently published The Sweet Dove Died and reprinted all her earlier work, with the American firm EP Dutton doing the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic.  Pym was back even though, for many English readers like Larkin and Lord Cecil, she had never really gone away.

Her success, while richly deserved, proved to be of relatively short duration.  This time, it was the return of the breast cancer which had hastened her retirement a few years earlier, rather than the fickleness of the publishing industry, which brought it to an end.  All attempts to treat the disease proved unsuccessful and Pym spent her final months in a hospice in her beloved Oxford, working frantically to complete her final novel A Few Green Leaves, which was published posthumously a few months after her death on 11 January 1980.  Crampton Hodnet, An Unsuitable Attachment, An Academic Question and Civil to Strangers and Other Writings were also published posthumously, as were A Very Private Eye and A Lot To Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym, a 1990 biography written by her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt.


Click HERE to visit THE BARBARA PYM SOCIETY, a US-based organization dedicated to studying, preserving and publicising the author's work.  You can also click HERE to visit Daily Pym, a quirky Tumblr blog which regularly features excerpts from it.  Her books are mostly still in print and should still be available via your local bookseller or favourite online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1949)
KINGSLEY AMIS That Uncertain Feeling (1955)
BENTLEY RUMBLE A Suitable Opportunity (2012)

 This post is lovingly dedicated to the memory of 
my late aunt 
(1 July 1923 17 April 2013) 
an 'excellent woman' if ever there was one

No comments:

Post a Comment