There are writers that discuss tragedy, rape, ruin, war, and devastation. Their books ruminate on the dramatic, life-altering, and singular events that for many people make great reading. Then there are the writers that map real, everyday life onto the pages of a novel. They do not discuss the list above because how often do these things really happen to most people? Instead, they create worlds where we can investigate our own ‘small’ dramas and learn how humanity interacts in the parlor, rather than imagining what one would do on a battlefield. The most famous of this type, of course, is Austen. Napoleon waltzed his war machine through Europe, cutting wide swaths of horror in his wake, arguments over law and the colonies filled Parliament, but Austen included relatively nothing of these worldly happenings. Her villains were not generals or tribal leaders, they were the sorts of people that sit a dinner party, sip their Madeira, and cut you like a knife with their heartless irony. Austen, and Pym after her, instructs us that drama exists on the living room scale. Every dinner party has the potential to play out like a dramatic Russian roulette, and these dramas are really the most important ones.
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women follows Mildred Lathbury, a woman who is unmarried but very useful. She lives near the local church, helps the curate with his women problems, sorts clothes for the jumble sale, makes tea for the neighbors, and tries to be as nice as she can. Mildred is our old Aunt or the nice lady that checks your books back into the library, with a “did you like this one, dear?” comment and a smile on her face. When the Napiers move in and Father Julian, the curate, strikes up an unsuitable (everyone in the neighborhood knows it’s unsuitable) relationship with a widow, Mildred is present because of her good sense, and because she has the time. After all, she’s not married, you know.
The dichotomy drawn between married women and unmarried women is clear. Miss Lathbury tells us at the beginning that we are not to confuse her with Jane Eyre, meaning that she is not to be found at the end of this novel with a ring on her finger, though as the story progresses I wonder if that is what she really wants after all. Multiple references are made to “the excellent women”, the women who are unmarried, selfless, kind, and, oh, can keep their kitchens tidy. Pym makes an obvious, almost sloppy, distinction between married and unmarried women on the state of their kitchens. The point is that the excellent women are thoughtful and clean. The married women are selfish and opportunistic. Allegra Gray, the woman who tries to catch Father Julian, is beautiful but wrong for him. After she leaves Julian, it is discovered that her kitchen is a wreck, with half empty food tins and a month old cake in the larder. This will never do.
The examples of marriage that Miss Lathbury presents are unacceptable, and I don’t wish these situations for her, but I do think that by the end of the novel she wants something else besides ‘excellence’. She wants companionship with a man. When Everard Bone, though he is arrogant, asks her to come over for dinner and she declines because she wants to know his motives before she accepts his offer, she worries for days that she should have gone over and cooked for him; she worries that he will not be able to handle himself in the kitchen, and she feels guilty for refusing him.
Pym’s characters are real and interesting, but not run of the mill in a modern, dramatic sense. These are church ladies, mostly, so if you’re looking for the type of scandal that makes even Jane Austen interesting, there is not much here. Though, to give Pym credit, we do get whiffs of adultery and inappropriate commingling under the same roof, but it’s all very proper and appropriately explained, you see, by Sister Blatt or someone else like that.
This is a wonderfully British book, and the more I think about it now, the more I like it. It is subtle and charming, a great book to read with tea and a biscuit. A book very clearly from a different generation, but, as with all great and timeless books, there is much to be learned about human relations from it.