Just over a week ago I was reading a column in the magazine of the Expresso, a Portuguese newspaper, by Ana Cristina Leonardo, whom I appreciate for her ironic wit and culture. It was called ‘Curses and Poor Diction’ (in Portuguese, the title was the far more euphonic ‘Maldições e Más Dicções’) in which, as a relief from what she called ‘interesting matters’ (which I took to mean idiotically fashionable or politically correct terminology), she recommended the novel Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. As I happened to have a copy unread on my shelves, in English, I plunged into it, and am glad I did.
Barbara Pym’s name is not well-known in the States these days, if indeed it is even in England, her home country. And yet it deserves to be. In the late 1970s, when the novelist had been out of print for some fourteen years, she was ‘rediscovered’ by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, who declared her the most underrated writer of the century. They may well be right. Excellent Women is a great comic achievement.
At first sight, it’s an old-fashioned novel of manners, much in the style of Jane Austen, with a first-person female narrator whose self-deprecating voice belies a sharp eye and an acerbic wit. Mildred is a single woman in her early thirties, who regards herself as plain, and is quite content to live alone, although naturally enough, in mid-century England, her friends all think she must want to be married. Her best friend Dora, whom she’s known since boarding-school (the characters are all middle-class, ‘genteel’ but not wealthy), believes that she should marry her—Dora’s—brother, William (a boring and self-centred man). Mildred is an enthusiastic church-goer, and friends with Father Julian Mallory and his sister Winifred—who hopes that Mildred will marry her forty-year old bachelor brother. But the ‘inciting incident’ of the novel, which sets the real conflicts in motion, is when Helena, a female anthropologist of liberated views, moves into the adjoining flat with her naval officer husband, Rockingham or ‘Rocky’—a libidinous and charming man, who already has a history of conquests of Wren officers (female navy officers). Mildred promptly falls in love with him, although she never explicitly says so, and although he flirts with her—his own wife is having an affair with another anthropologist, the improbably and almost obscenely named Everard Bone—Mildred is constrained by the knowledge that he is married, and by her religious views. Still, when Rocky and Helena break up, it seems the way is open. Rocky even invites Mildred to stay at his country cottage. Everard also appears to be interested in her. And although the priest seems to be snapped up when he gets engaged to Allegra Gray, a ‘merry widow’, it becomes clear that he may be wondering whether Mildred was a better bet. In a sense, then, as in Austen’s novels, the dramatic question is: who will the heroine marry? But we’re no longer in Austen’s world, and if mid-twentieth century England appears inconceivably archaic to contemporary eyes, it’s clear that women with jobs (Mildred works for a charity for distressed gentlewomen) have more freedom than the heroines of Georgian England.
As A.N. Wilson says, this is a quiet novel, and one which might, at first sight, appear irrelevant to the modern woman or man. There is no violent action, or even violent speech—these characters have all been brought up to be gentlemen and ladies, and although their behaviour isn’t always impeccable, their manners are. And many of the attitudes of the characters (not necessarily those of the author, it goes without saying) appear quaint and absurdly archaic, such as when Mildred is shocked, or at least says she is, when her neighbour says she’s too busy to cook for her husband. And yet the novel is hilarious, and even, if not in an obvious way, feminist: Mildred sees clearly the hypocrisy of society, especially male society, with regard to ‘excellent women’—that is, those women who are not glamorous like her neighbour or Mrs. Gray, but are deemed worthy of being useful—of doing good works for the church and community, and (of course) providing food and tea and comfort for men.
This is one of those novels that doesn’t fare well in summary—imagine having to give the idiotic ‘elevator pitch’ to an agent or editor—and yet it’s far better than my inadequate sketch might suggest. For a start, the ironic humour, which is one of the most defining features of English literary fiction, is a delight—and, as Wilson points out, unlike much humour, these characters are believable, not caricatures. Second, there’s real suspense. At one point Mildred seems to have her choice of three men, each of them highly eligible in different ways, and we wonder which, if any, she will take. But we shouldn’t be fooled by the humour into thinking that the novel is slight. What’s at stake here is not merely marriage, but the meaning of life itself—is it love, as the romantic novel insists? Or something else? Or may there be no meaning at all? (Bear in mind that Larkin was a great admirer of Pym’s fiction, and eventually became a close friend.) Beneath the comedy lurk existential questions worthy of Milan Kundera or Graham Greene.
Finally, I find, perhaps inevitably, that I’m led to some dangerous conclusions. (I’m aware that any man who risks making pronouncements on anything to do with women risks opprobrium—but when it comes to literature, I find I can’t help myself.) Of course no contemporary woman is nostalgic for the mid-twentieth century, when men so often took women for granted and treated them—the attractive ones, at any rate—as objects of desire. Still, among all the strident voices one hears in the gender wars nowadays (and I use the adjective deliberately, aware that it’s often proscribed as misogynist—but why not use it, since there are strident voices on both—or should I say all?—sides?) one is struck by the quietness and politeness of Pym’s voice, which is, however, far from weak. One is struck by her irony and self-deprecation, in contrast to the ferocious and self-righteous rhetoric (on all sides) in the current debates. And although I’m aware that terms like ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’ are politically incorrect now, indicative as they are held to be of a patriarchal and patronising attitude, still one is struck that however the men in Excellent Women take the women for granted, there’s no sexual harassment, let alone assault. One wonders what women may have lost, along with what they’ve obviously gained. This is not to advocate a return to more conservative values, of course. But I am certainly advocating a return to some of the great female writers of the past century, among them Barbara Pym. We could learn much from those old ladies, as they would certainly have described themselves. Excellent women, indeed.