Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Back to Barbara (Pym)

Excellent Women with Almonds, 2010

Excellent women are women men take for granted. In a parish, they are there to help make the tea, arrange flowers in the church and provide companionship for the more boring members of the congregation with whom the priests can't be bothered.

Those women who are openly sexually alluring do not seem to be excellent, and do not need to bother themselves with such unselfish tasks as washing up or making curtains.

-Excerpt from A. N. Wilson's 2005 Introduction (Excellent Women by Barbara Pym)

Miss Mildred Lathbury is at the center of Barbara Pym's quietly comical and unpretentious story, Excellent Women. We are introduced to Mildred's way of thinking on the first page of the novel as she ponders her life at present.

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 also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Later in the novel we accompany Mildred as she is lost in a crowd of busy women shopping. Soon she is looking at her reflection in a mirror and seeing herself as colourless and worried-looking, the eyes large and rather frightened, the lips too pale. An uncomfortable encounter with a sales clerk ends even more uncomfortably, but with her desired shade of lipstick in hand.

'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savouring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame.

I hurried away and found myself on an escalator. Hawaiian Fire, indeed! Nothing more unsuitable could possibly be imagined. I began to smile and only just stopped myself from laughing out loud...

Although we have very little in common, I am quite fond of Mildred. Seeing 1950s England through her eyes is a treat. Her observations of everyday life are subtle, yet crystal clear. Honestly, I really don't think she would have liked me very much, but she would have tolerated me, because that's what Mildred does, she tolerates people. She believes it is her duty. It would not be wise for me to hope for more. But like Mildred, I would adore Rockingham Napier before ever setting eyes on him. Rockingham is such a fabulously commanding name. And if I lived in 1950s England, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself sitting alone eating a very small chop followed by a little knitting with my radio tuned to Saturday Night Theatre. This does actually resemble a night I might have while Chris works late. My kind of adventure. Also, I find her idea for a novel exquisite. Perhaps Miss Lathbury and I have more in common than I originally thought.

Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin. Mr. Napier was called Rockingham!
I dare say a clever person with a fantastic turn of mind could transform even a laundry list into a poem.
I hurried about the kitchen, eating the baked beans in ten minutes or less, quite without dignity, and then washing up.
I thought of my half-used tin of baked beans; no doubt I should be seeing them again tomorrow.
You know I'm not used to wine, particularly in the middle of the day, I said, but it's rather pleasant to be unlike oneself occasionally.
It was a sobering kind of place to be in and a glance at my face in the dusty ill-lit mirror was enough to discourage anybody's romantic thoughts.
It was a good thing he began talking, for I am not used to meeting handsome men and I am afraid that I must have been staring at him rather rudely.
So he did remember me like that after all -- a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one.
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.

-Miss Mildred Lathbury Excerpts
(Excellent Women by Barbara Pym 1952)

One more thing before I go. It's always interesting to see the way the British use English a bit differently than we do here in America. For instance, I was sent to the dictionary after feeling confused by a particular passage in Excellent Women and learned the following (note 1 chiefly British, not 2):

Main Entry: slut
Pronunciation: \ˈslət\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English slutte
Date: 15th century
1 chiefly British : a slovenly woman
2 a : a promiscuous woman; especially : prostitute b : a saucy girl : minx

There, we've gotten that out of the way. Now new American readers of Excellent Women will not be confused.


  1. I'm going to have this read this :)

  2. Rebekah, Hi there. Nice to see you. Excellent Women is a fun summer read. Enjoy.

  3. Well I just had to put in for an interlibrary loan for you, you sold me and now I have to read it for myself. Thanks! I love discovering new books.

  4. And there I was wandering around the library today searching frantically for one more book.

    I loved each and every paragraph you shared with us.

  5. Oh, I was hoping that you would tell us more about Barbara Pym's writing. What voice! Those few lines, and I have got such an image of Mildred.

    Hawaiian Fire Indeed!

  6. Thenkyewverymuch. This plus your bedside table reading which I just noticed is sending me off to the library for some fresh material.

    And believe me, as a Canadian living in America with an English husband, I get confused over how even *I* say things....

  7. I'd forgotten all this and must reread it, and am intrigued to find out why she would not like you.

  8. Denise, Earlier this week, I picked up Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. Have you read it? I really wanted Excellent Women. ...think I'll put it on reserve. Love your excerpts!

    Good to know I'm not alone in excerpting --I have a short list of some from Welty -- mainly because they shocked me.

  9. I added this to my goodreads "to read" list already! Thanks for the tip!

  10. fantastic post! i'm so intrigued. and i adore that photo. the crease in the book!

    xo Alison

  11. oh fun...i love discovering new books

  12. THANK YOU for this, it looks so good! I need to read it.
    As Oscar Wilde said, the Americans and the Brits have everything in common except the language! :)

  13. How nice to experience this book through your eyes. It sounds like a real gem.

  14. well, i think i have to read this book now! i´m on the hunt...
    you really haven´t seen redcurrants jet? that feels so strange since here in germany they grow in almost every garden.

  15. alexandria, Good. It's my turn. You are always hooking me. It will be a fun read.

    ImplausibleYarn, Enjoy!

    flwrjane, If you are still feeling lonely, Barbara and Rockingham can keep you company.

    nancy, I just love that Hawaiian Fire lipstick bit--so funny!

    mosey, A Canadian and Englishman living together in America must have some interesting interactions, especially early in the relationship. I recall asking for a band-aid in our London hotel and being looked at sideways. I learned what I called a band-aid was a plaster in London...

    mise, Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe Barbara and I would be pals.

    countingdandelions, Did you like Pym's first novel? I'm planning on reading more of her work. I'd love to see your Welty short list.

    Stacy, Great! Enjoy.

    and flowers pick themselves, The book crease is one of the perks of reading books from the public library. I like thinking about all of the people before me getting lost in the library book I'm reading.

    Char, I hope you like it.

    Mary-Laure, It is a fun read. Mr. Wilde, he always had something witty to say.

    Jessica, It is a fun book.

    wsake, We don't have red currants in every garden here. They are so pretty. I wish we had more.

  16. Okay, I'm back. Noah needed me... I may have to read this, too! I love this character already.

    Thank you for the introduction.


  17. sounds like a great book. i love the awakening by kate chopin, as well as stories of strong women through the ages (like the Italian Courtesans of the renaissance). thanks for the review!

  18. Rachel, I read The Awakening too. Apparently, it was pretty risque for its time period (1899). It created such scandal, Kate Chopin never wrote again. Very sad.

  19. Sounds like a really enjoyable book!
    Have you finished it?
    Most likely not similar but have you ever heard of Peter Lovesey's The Reaper? Such a charming fun read.

  20. Nix, Yes, I finished reading it a while back. I'm not familiar with Peter Lovesey. I'll look him up. Thanks!

  21. so, you do this too, huh, lift excerpts from novels... i feared i was like the only one doing this funny little number. do you turn back to your scrapbook in times of worry?
    i find i do. and then i have forgotten about the original circumstances, and discover that what i have written doesn't actually make sense anymore, or a lot less sense...
    and of course you've got me interested in the story now. thank you for bringing so meticulously this gem to the attention . :)))

  22. What a great recommendation! Thank you!

  23. woolf, I so rarely return to my journals, but I'd like that to change. I wonder if I'll be able to make sense of what I've written.

    Anja, You are welcome.