Sunday, September 01, 2013

Excellent Women (reposted from 2007)

I would have loved to reread Excellent Women with the rest of the group, but I wasn't able to in time. I did, however, read the novel back in 2007, and I posted on it then. So I thought I'd repost my thoughts here. Here's what I wrote back then:

I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women. It tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her 30s whose life is taken up with part-time work helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” attending services and volunteering at the church, and maintaining friendships with the vicar and his sister. She also finds herself endlessly caught up in other people’s business:
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.
She is one of the “excellent women” of the novel’s title, women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time to — and are expected to — devote themselves to taking care of others.
As the novel opens, a new couple is moving into the flat above Mildred’s; they are Helena and Rocky, and Mildred does not know what to make of them. Helena is an anthropologist and not terribly interested in her marriage; she spends her time with fellow-anthropologist Everard, working on writing up their field notes. She is a terrible housekeeper, a fact that disturbs and intrigues Mildred. Rocky is utterly charming and perhaps a trifle fake; Mildred quickly falls for him, but also wonders, as she does, whether Rocky really means to charm her, or whether he simply can’t help but make women fall in love with him.

Helena and Rocky disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. She is quickly doing things she has never done before, such as attending lectures in anthropology and mediating marital squabbles. Her life is further disrupted when the vicar — her close friend and up to now a confirmed bachelor — begins a flirtation and gets engaged.
The novel is told in the first person, which Pym uses very cleverly to capture Mildred’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, but also to make clear to the reader her naivete and lack of experience; Helena, for example, hints that the vicar might be gay, but this passes right over Mildred’s head. And yet Mildred knows she hasn’t experienced much — she’s very aware of her limitations, painfully aware at times. She does her best, wading into the deeper waters recent experience has led her to, but she also longs for things to be the way they once were, quiet and comfortable.

As much as she is aware of her lack of experience, however, Mildred has a strong sense of identity; she knows who she is, what her social role is, and how she wants to live. As an “excellent woman,” she accepts that many people expect her to help them out — why shouldn’t she, after all? What else does she have to do? She tries to be useful, but also to keep from being used — and here she fails now and then, as each of the main characters takes advantage of her at one point or another. It’s frustrating at times to watch Mildred trying and frequently failing to maintain the balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself.

For me, the pleasure of reading this novel lies in Mildred’s astute understanding of her small world; she knows it’s a small world, but what’s important is that it’s hers and she wants to enjoy it. She’s capable of viewing it with a critical, satirical eye, but also of loving it. She strikes me as courageous — both in accepting her life as it is and in remaining open to the ways it can possibly change.

Excellent Women

Mildred Lathbury fills her days working at a part-time job at an agency that assists older unmarried women, helping out at the church, and, almost despite herself, getting wrapped up in other people’s personal crises. She is both connected and disconnected to her neighbors in 1950s London. She knows all about their lives, but what do they know of hers? Mildred tells her own story in Barbara Pym’s lively and intelligent novel Excellent Women. 
Early in the novel, Mildred says that “an unmarried woman over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business.” Lacking troubles of her own to attend to, Mildred becomes a sounding board for everyone else. Her new neighbors, the Napiers, take advantage of Mildred’s sympathetic demeanor, coming to her at every step of the way as they deal with their own discontentments and worries about their marriage. Mildred, being an “excellent woman,” is willing to help, but her presence in the relationship is merely that, a presence—someone to transmit messages or to keep an eye on things when the movers come. Her own feelings about it aren’t part of the conversation, and although she is wise enough to know that her feelings might be unwise, she does have feelings.

People count on Mildred, but are they building strong connections to her as a person? When Mildred helps her friend Winifred sort donations for the church jumble sale, the two of them discuss the old framed photos being donated to the sale. Winifred is appalled that anyone would donate of photo of a relation, but Mildred is more matter-of-fact, noting that they had probably been stored away for years and the donors probably didn’t even knew who the people in the photos were. Yet, matter-of-fact as she is about it, she sees her own future in those photographs:
I could see very well what [Winifred] meant, for unmarried women with no ties could very well become unwanted. I should feel it even more than Winifred, for who was there to really grieve for me when I was gone? Dora, the Malorys, one or two people in my old village might be sorry, but I was not really first in anybody’s life. I could so very easily be replaced.
As an unmarried woman of a certain age myself, this sentiment is quite familiar to me, and I appreciated that Pym could have Mildred express this feeling about her state without making her seem self-pitying or hysterical or unbalanced. Mildred is realistic about her position. She’s not unhappy exactly, but she sees and understands the downsides about her life, even as she’s not entirely sure she wants to change it. One of the characters observes that some people have a knack for finding a mate, which means that widows are likely to marry again. The unspoken converse of this is that others, like Mildred, don’t have the knack. Flip the idea around even further, and you can see that the Mildreds of the world have the knack for being alone.

I think Mildred’s knack for singlehood turns up in her friendship with the anthropologist Everard Bone. She meets Everard through her neighbors with the emotional fraught marriage. (As it happens, Mrs Napier’s interest in Everard is one of the reasons for the conflict.) She runs into him at midday Lenten services at church, and he lingers on the street near her office, waiting for an opportunity to ask her to lunch or to have dinner at his house. To many, Everard’s purpose might seem obvious, but Mildred assumes he’s looking for something other than her company. Intervention with Mrs Napier, help cooking a cut of meat, something other than her companionship for itself. Anything else would involve signals she cannot, or will not (which is it?), pick up on. Or perhaps she knows her own experience well enough to know exactly what it is that Everard doesn’t want.

As the book drew to a close, I kept wondering where this ambiguous courtship was leading. And at the risk of spoiling the ending, I’ll say that I was impressed with how well Pym maintained the ambiguous nature of the relationship, right up to the ending and beyond. You can turn that final conversation around and upside down and still not be sure what Everard was after or what Mildred herself wanted.

Representations of single women in media often give me trouble, not because they all get everything wrong or because they’re all mean-spirited but often because they focus on one aspect of the experience: the freedom or the loneliness. Or they dwell on the desire for a mate and make finding one a goal. This book captures so much more. It gets at how singleness (like any life situation) can be happy and miserable. It doesn’t revel in the joy or make simple pleasures bigger than they are, and it doesn’t wallow in the misery or turn sadness into grand tragedy. In some ways, it’s a hard book for me to talk about, because parts of it hit close to the bone. But it’s not a heavy or depressing book at all. It’s wise and funny and real in ways that few books are. It was also my first experience reading Barbara Pym, and I loved it as much as I thought I would. I’m glad the Slaves of Golconda reading group finally pushed me to read it.

Cross-posted at Shelf Love