” My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink. I felt resentful and bitter towards Helena and Rocky and even towards Julian, though I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy the kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha, who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink. ” (Ch.17, p.161)
Excellent Women shrewdly captures the world of elderly churchgoers, the parish, and the relations between the sexes in postwar England. When Mildred Lathbury’s parents died, within two years of each other, she was left with a small income of her own, an assortment of furniture, but no home. In a lodging house she finds a home with a sitting room and an attic, with the vicar and his sister being her neighbors. In her early thirties she is an unmarried do-gooding gentle woman who devotes her time serving the poor and the needy.
I haven’t been married, so perhaps that’s one source of happiness or unhappiness removed straight away. (Ch.14, p.125)
Pym lays out this well-defined world with characters that are drawn very sharply. The comic genius of Excellent Women is not that Mildred Lathbury, the respectable and shabby-genteel spinster, is unwanted by her society. Rather, she is too much in demand. Her quiet life becomes ruffled and complicated when a confused married couple moves in below, and she becomes the go-between of the quarreling pair. The few bachelors she knows–an anthropologist, a society snob, and even the vicar—subtly feel her out for her interest in marrying them. Beneath these overtures that she always curtails is an underlying loneliness that makes the book more grim and pungent than comic.
Clergymen did not go holding people’s hands in public places unless their intentions were honourable, I told myself, hoping that I might perhaps be wrong, for clergymen were, as Dora had pointed out, human beings, and might be supposed to share the weaknesses of normal men. (Ch.11, p.107-108)
Pym delivers very sharp observations about men and women, together and apart, and society’s expectations for them. Privy to all these is Mildred, single, independent, and having modest opinion of herself, who is too scrupulous to ever commit to a married life. Her constant self-deprecation is often offset by her unspoken but sound understanding that her life is too rich in its observations of others for her to subsume her ego to others’ needs. The novel beautifully depicts the negotiations everyone makes to connect to others and examines the subtlety of these relations.
256 pp. Plume Paperback. [Read/
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