Wednesday, 31 December 2014

EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

I love the 'Staff Recommendations' section of a bookstore. There's something very charming and local about it, and one often finds quality there. If you've chosen to work at a bookstore rather than say a frozen yoghurt store it's probably because you actually like books, and I find the recommendations are often unexpected and educational. It occurs to me as I type this that this may be because rather than just 'liking' books, given this economy, people working retail jobs in bookstores all have Masters degree in Lit. We're all going to hell in a handbasket. Anyway, back to Barbara Pym. Philip Larkin once said "I'd sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen." I can't quite agree with him there, but Pym is a fine writer, and I enjoyed EXCELLENT WOMEN.

Mildred Lathbury is single and over thirty, which apparently means she is a confirmed spinster, and is expected to devote her life to helping others. She is also a clergyman's daughter, which apparently makes it all much worse.
Platitudes flowed easily from me, perhaps because, with my parochial experience, I know myself to be capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather . . . 'Mildred is such a help to her father' people used to say after my mother died
A glamorous couple moves into her apartment building, and she is slowly drawn into their lives. The marriage is falling apart, and the husband, good-looking and fun, starts to spend a good amount of time with Mildred.

You might feel like you can probably guess where the novel is going, but in fact you can't. Mildred is always cautious about what all this means, and indeed she is quite right to be. He returns to his wife, Mildred turning out to have been no more to him than a comfortable sofa and a cup of tea; and curiously, Mildred is not very bothered: she enjoys her freedom, and was getting tired of having to make a man dinner on demand. It's a strange little book, mostly comic, but with a little touch of sadness; though one can't quite tell if there's any reason to be sad. It's odd Larkin compared her to Austen, because it's rather anti-Austen, in it's own way, with Mildred ending up alone and happy. Or sort of happy.

As she herself says, early on, having described her appearance as mousey and unremarkable:
Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her


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