Barbara Pym Centenary: Excellent Women
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Loved it again. Review tomorrow or day after - too tired to think strainght tonight.
10: Lovely review, Ali. (I thought I was safe to read it as Excellent Women will be a re-read for me!)
It's the hardback edition with the Orla Kiely cover which Virago published in 2008 with several other "designer" editions. I was new to the Virago forum and Barbara Pym at the time, but newly enthused and I really wanted this book! As I wasn't working at the time and my husband was on a low wage, I very rarely bought new books but justified the purchase as a reward for completing the volunteer training at the organisation where I now work as a volunteer trainer and coordinator!
I remember it being well worth the expense and am looking forward to re-reading!
I am also endlessly fascinated by the title and what constitutes an excellent woman. Yes, it is the group of single, capable, hard working, neither rich nor impoverished women who do work in churches and charities and suffer small slights and embarrassments. However, Pym seems to call into question whether any of them are excellent in character or otherwise. The phrase seems to be deployed mostly by men and a few self-serving women who want them to do something for them.
While I love that Pym again subverts the expected marriage plot none of her characters escape the spheres in which they have confined themselves. I suspect this is simply true to life but most of us wish for a little escape. In fact she says it,
"...after all, life ws like that for most of us - the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longing rather than the great dramatic renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction"
She also seems to hint that it may be better to be an excellent woman than tied to a loveless or complicated marriage. Even if Mildred is put upon by others she maintains some fragment of life that is her own.
It held up very well on rereading.
Excellent Women has these moments of startling clarity that still dazzle me, even when I know they are in there. Two are in Chapter Fourteen -- the moment when Mildred and Allegra Gray go to lunch, and Mildred is startled by Mrs Gray's forwardness when she is trying to get Mildred to get someone out of her hair: "I saw Mrs Gray's face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot color."
After making a hasty getaway, just a page later, Mildred finds herself in the department store, browsing cosmetics. She longs "to be lost in a crowd of busy women shopping" but is still alienated enough to observe them, and herself. This is the thing -- she is able to see herself, but the fact that she can doesn't mean she can disassociate with the world entirely. She participates in making herself up -- "I could at least buy a new lipstick, I thought, consulting the shade card." When Mildred chooses one she thinks right for herself, with a strange exotic name, the "girl" behind the counter doesn't think it "quite your colour" and looked "at me blankly, as if no shade could really do anything for me."
"'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savoring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame." On to tea she goes, observing others in the restaurant -- "Many had the satisfaction of having done a good day's shopping and would have something to gloat over when they got home. I had only my Hawaiian Fire and something not very interesting for supper."
The third is in the work of genius that is Mrs Bone. While much in the book is proper and civilized, even the anthropologists preoccupied with primitives, here an anthropologist's mother exhibits extremely primal urges.
"'Read this.' She handed me a cutting headed OWL BITES WOMAN, from which I read that an owl had flown in through a cottage window and bitten a woman on the chin. 'And this,' she went on, handing me another cutting which told how a swan had knocked a girl off her bicycle. 'What do you think of that?'
'Oh, I suppose they were just accidents,' I said.
'Accidents! Even Miss Jessop agrees that they are rather more than accidents, don't you, Miss Jessop?'"
When they sit down to dinner, "'I eat as many birds as possible,' said Mrs Bone when we were sitting down to roast chicken. 'I have them sent from Harrods or Fortnum's, and sometimes I go and look at them in the cold meats department. They do them up very prettily with aspic jelly and decorations. At least we can eat our enemies.'"
Reflecting on these episodes, the theme of anthropological studies stands out to me. Underlying the plot and characters of the book are these primal impulses, or what a friend of mine used to call biological imperatives, many of which seem messy in the modern landscape of shops, restaurants, and churches. These impulses are still the most important -- finding a mate, earning a living, ornamenting oneself to fit in or stand out -- but somehow the experience of them is different because they can be observed dispassionately, almost in the way an anthropologist observes others living in the flow of culture. But the modern predicament is that we cannot simply live in the flow of culture -- we observe ourselves, and so can never fully buy in to the Hawaiian Fire lava flow.
This is a book I read again and again, and either it or I have gotten smarter -- I think it's it, and that insight has come from rereading!
I feel a little dumb here, but is the term "excellent women" a commonly used term as it is used in this book (for single women who work for churches, charities, etc.), or common during the era the book was written? Or is it Pym's invention?