Pym Reading Week: Excellent Women

As pleased as I am to be joining those who are participating in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas of My Porch, I must confess to a bit of…boredom? I know Barbara is supposed to be funny, and certainly, there are several situations which are just that. But humorous is not the word that I would use to describe her writing as much as bland.
I abandoned A Glass Of Blessings halfway through after repeated attempts. I finally asked myself why I was persevering so diligently with such little pleasure. Excellent Women was easier to get going, but still I tired of reading about washing up, movers, bits of fish for luncheon, bossy old ladies, and the loneliness in Mildred’s life.
She never made me feel sorry for her. In fact, I admired her fortitude and independence as she lived in her flat alone once her friend Dora had moved on. Mildred is single, plain, and considers herself uninspiring when she compares herself with the Napiers across the hall, or Allegra Gray, the widow who moved in with her friends Julian Malory and his sister, Winifred. She feels dreadful when she is caught unexpectedly by Everard Bone while she is wearing a housedress, without stockings, covered by a cardigan. One day after lunching with Mrs. Gray she decides that what she really needs is a lipstick. This is one of the few scenarios which utterly charmed me, perhaps because I have been as daunted in searching for the right shade as our plain Mildred seems to be. 
“I strolled through a grove of dress materials and found myself at a counter piled with jars of face-cream and lipsticks. I suddenly remembered Allegra Gray’s smooth apricot-coloured face rather too close to mine and wondered what it was that she used to get such a striking effect. There was a mirror on the counter and I caught sight of my own face, colourless and worried-looking, the eyes large and rather frightened, the lips too pale. I did not feel that I could ever acquire a smooth apricot complexion but I could at least buy a new lipstick, I thought, consulting the shade-card. The colours had such peculiar names but at last I chose one that seemed right and began to turn over a pile of lipsticks in a bowl in an effort to find it. But the colour I had chosen was either very elusive or not there at all, and the girl behind the counter, who had been watching my scrabblings in a disinterested way, said at last, “What shade was it you wanted, dear?”
I was a little annoyed at being called ‘dear’, though it was perhaps more friendly than ‘madam’, suggesting as it did that I lacked the years and poise to merit the more dignified title.
“It’s called Hawaiian Fire,” I mumbled, feeling rather foolish for it had not occurred to me that I should have to say it out loud.” (p. 130)
Of course this book is about far more important things than buying a particular shade of lipstick; it’s about excellent women. The phrase is used numerous times throughout the narrative…
“Of course you’ve never been married,” she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women…” (p. 27)
“But my dear Mildred, you mustn’t marry,” he was saying indignantly. “Life is disturbing enough as it is without these alarming suggestions. I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman.” (p. 69)
“I felt that the ‘among’ spoilt it  a little and imagined a crowd of us, all excellent women connected with the church, hearing the news (that Julian Malory and Mrs. Gray are engaged).”  (p. 132)
“It was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up.” (p. 170)
“You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” I asked in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.” (p. 189)

“It is a known fact that people like clergy men’s daughters, excellent women in their way, sometimes rush in where the less worthy might fear to tread.” (p. 221)

What is it that Pym is telling her readers? By the time we get to the end of the story, Mildred Lathbury has seen the dissolution of Allegra’s engagement, as well as the way that Helena has taken back her husband while neither of them are loyal to each other. Just because these women have had their flings, their engagements, their marriages, they do not qualify as excellent women. Perhaps, Pym suggests to me, being an excellent woman is worth its weight, for they are the ones who are respected and esteemed. The excellent women of this world are the ones who have “a full life after all.”

Fin other thoughts on this novel here, here, here, here, and at our excellent host’s here

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21 comments

  1. One of our reading friends made a reference to the fact that Mildred and Everard appear in another book, and I thought 'spoiler alert!' and spent the rest of my reading expecting a different ending to the book, and liking the one we got much better. Maybe she's finding, and giving her characters, some ironic satisfaction with their lot? In the Quality Paperback Book Club edition (remember that? old!!) I've been reading, Anne Tyler imagines a conversation between B.P. and Jane Austen, where J.A. talks about how her heroines can find a man and B.P. wonders why they'd want to. Thanks for braving these books with us, anyway!

  2. I keep seeing Barbara Pym popping up because of this special reading week, and I must say I'm interesting in reading something by her. It sounds like I need to find just the right one, though.

  3. I really enjoy hosted reading weeks because they introduce me to authors I usually haven't tried before. It's especially interesting to all talk about the book at the same time, which often mediates my opinion…in this case, to Pym's benefit.

  4. I remember reading on some site that those two get married in this book, which certainly didn't seem the case when I finished it! Everard seems much too preoccupied with himself, and our Mildred (what names!) is fond of her independence even while she may be lonely at times. I love your conversation between Pym and Austen; how astute of Anne Tyler!

  5. Hmm… I have also read some glowing reviews of Barbara Pym's work lately (on The Indextrious Reader, for example). Perhaps she is a bit too understated for your taste, or a bit dated? At any rate, I enjoyed and appreciated the search for the perfect shade of lipstick you present in this post (I had to order my own favorite online, as the stores no longer carry it).

  6. I'm another person discovering her through the reading week and being a little less than enthusiastic about her quiet, plot-optional style. It's interesting to see why she's popular but I admit I was hoping for a little more directness or purpose. It has been wonderful to compare opinions though via the reading week round-ups.

  7. That's disappointing. I have those two same Pym books you've read and now I'm thinking I'll wait to read them – if I ever do. We do seem to have the same taste in books, so I'm thinking Pym might not be for me. Oh well, we can't love them all, right?

  8. Thanks for telling me about The Indextrious Reader posting on Pym, too. Maybe understated would be a better word than boring, although I certainly don't need a book to be all plot and drama to make me like it. And, I love the nostalgic aspect of the 50's. for whatever reason that I can't yet define, Pym leaves me cold. Maybe that won't always be the case when I try another. Now you have to tell me your favorite shade of lipstick!

  9. I like your phrase “quiet, plot-optional”, Alex. Maybe I'd like a little more purpose, too, although her purpose may simply be highlighting the idiosyncrasies, foibles, and even strengths of human nature. I can well imagine the characters as they seem to pop out from my own youth even here in America.

  10. Nadia, we do have such a very similar opinion (on even more than books, I think)! I'd be interested to know if you have a similar reaction to her as I did. But I suggest starting with this one rather than A Glass of Blessing which really bored me.

  11. Thanks for this post :) In the bookshop I sometimes work at people often order Barbara Pym books, although I've never read one myself. Perhaps if I decide to read some of her work I'll find library books instead of purchasing them!

    Saying that, the fact that there's an edition of Excellent Women in the Virago Modern Classics hardbound collection does make me want to spend some money…

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Excellent-Women-VMC-Designer-Collection/dp/1844085260/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1370532844&sr=1-1

  12. Pym is definitely quite, understated, and dated, but there are times when that is exactly what I crave. Her novels are 'comfort reading' for me, but it's easy to see why they are not everyone's 'cup of tea' ;-)

  13. I can understand turning to them for comfort reading. There is definitely a soothing quality, and certainly more than once I longed to share a proper tea with her women. Well, Mildred anyway. ;)

  14. Thanks for including all the quotes from Pym…they help to give a bit of context to your comments. I liked the passage about lipstick shopping and finding the right shade…perhaps it's my vanity showing through….my confession is that it's the one cosmetic I usually don't leave the house without. Sad but, true.

    I haven't read Pym,but in comparison to Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen how would you describe it? I was just reminded of Good Wives as I was reading your post.

  15. I hoped the quotes would add substance; I figured if Pym was going to entitle her novel by that phrase, it must be important so I kept a look out for those two words as I read. ;)

    I never leave the house without lipstick, either. Never. And I adore red as my favorite shade. However, something called Hawaiian Fire sounds terrifying!

    I don't think Pym is similar to Alcott very much because the later tends to write novels with “instructions” or at least some form of moral guidance. At least to me. But, comparing her to Austen seems more appropriate. They both write of the characters of their time, and it is an interesting portrayal of society in both instances.

  16. I agree with you on the lipstick colour name – Hawaiian Fire sounds like something out of a volcano – not something I want on my lips. :) I enjoy reading the names of the nail polish, lipstick, or paint colours though. How do they come up with them? Anyhow, I'm off track now…

    Thanks for your opinion on how Pym compares to the other two authors….I enjoy Austen…so maybe I should give Pym a try. (Although my list of books keeps growing….how do you decide?) The more I read and the more posts I check out, the less I feel I know!

  17. I think I might be becoming far too fond of the bland, what with liking Brookner and now discovering Pym who has the added bonus of being so quietly cattily funny (that line about “You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” I asked in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.” sums it up for me!).

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