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Reading groups: The joy of life’s stock situations

06 December 2013

Kate Charles on Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


ALTHOUGH many critics would argue that the novels of Barbara Pym's late career period are her finest, few people would disagree with Excellent Women as the best place for a Pym novice to begin reading her books (Features, 24 May).

This is due in no small part to the voice of Mildred Lathbury, the first-person narrator, one of the most appealing characters Pym ever created. A clergyman's daughter, she describes herself, sets up the novel, and defines its scope within the first couple of pages:

"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 fête spoiled by bad weather."

Mildred is indeed capable, as well as kind and generous, with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a quirky imagination, and a wry sense of the ridiculous. At the beginning of the novel, she is settled into a life of good works, in an Anglo-Catholic parish in post-war London. But her life is about to change.

Pym uses the sure-fire plot-device of taking a static situation and injecting new characters into it, upsetting the status quo and scrambling interpersonal relationships. In Mildred's case, this means new neighbours: the recently demobbed naval officer Rocky Napier, and his anthropologist wife, Helena.

Rocky is charming, in a way that Mildred recognises as dangerous, but is still unable to resist. Helena is scatty, and brings with her yet more interesting characters to add complications to Mildred's life, including the somewhat enigmatic and yet attractive Everard Bone.

On the church front, the status quo is challenged by another new arrival, a clergy widow, Allegra Gray, who moves into the spare room at the vicarage, and wreaks havoc on the comfortably settled life of the vicar and his unworldly sister.

One of the joys of any Pym novel is the colourful cast of secondary characters, and Excellent Women has its share: from the gossipy Welsh cleaning-lady Mrs Morris, to Esther Clovis (with "hair like a dog"), to outspoken Sister Blatt and the other "excellent women" of the parish, Everard Bone's eccentric, bird-phobic mother ("At least we can eat our enemies"), and the fuss-budget William Caldicote - "not the kind of man to marry".

It is William who is most upset by the idea that Mildred might change - might even get married. "Life is disturbing enough as it is without these alarming suggestions," he declares. Yet, by the end of the novel, Mildred has changed, in her appearance as well as in her interior life, and William fails to recognise it. "How do you usually look? One scarcely remembers," he says, vaguely.

And the parish, once Allegra has come and gone, has changed as well, although the framework appears the same: the Christmas bazaar will be held on the first Saturday in December, as it always has been. But "nothing can ever be really the same when time has passed," Mildred says, "even if it appears to be from the outside."

Like Jane Austen before her, Pym wrote novels of extraordinary detail, focusing on the particular and the personal rather than the global. Her detractors may dismiss her as trivial, but those who love her books find this particularity to be a great strength. Against a background of war-damaged London, with continuing food shortages and bombed-out churches, Mildred and her friends carry on with their meticulously observed lives.

"Life was like that for most of us - the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction."

Comparison with Austen does not end there. Is there not something of Pride and Prejudice in the way that Mildred dismisses Everard, finding him proud and distant, and only eventually coming to recognise his good qualities? And is there not likewise an echo of Mr Wickham in the facile, charming Rocky?

Any discussion of Excellent Women would be incomplete without a mention of that beverage that lubricates all social interaction: tea. There are no fewer than 115 mentions of tea in the novel - the tea urn at church functions, the tea lady in Whitehall offices, tea in china cups at the Learned Society, tea at Lyon's Corner House, and tea in a rustic teashop in Devon.

Mildred makes endless cups of tea for the people who pass through her life, seeing it as one of her primary functions to be "the person who was always making cups of tea at moments of crisis". Only once, in a mad moment, does she question its centrality to life, at a meeting of the parish Christmas-bazaar committee.

"'Do we need tea?' [Miss Statham] echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury . . .' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night."

I don't think it is overstating the case to describe Excellent Women as a masterpiece, a gem of a novel which serves as the ideal introduction to the work of a fine writer.

Oh, and did I mention that the book is very, very funny?

Kate Charles, the author of a number of crime novels set against the background of the Church of England, was a founder member of the Barbara Pym Society and its chairman for six years.

She has also chaired the Crime Writers' Association. Her most recent book is Deep Waters (Allison & Busby, 2013).

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is published by Virago Modern Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84408-451-7.


Excellent women - SOME QUESTIONS

What is an excellent woman? Do you know anyone of whom the phrase might be used?

This novel has often been compared to Jane Austen's books, as Alexander McCall Smith does in his introduction. What similarities do you see between these authors' works?

McCall Smith believes that Mildred's world is one that the contemporary reader can recognise in our own times. How far do you agree with that judgement? 

"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her." How does Mildred find herself so involved in the lives of others? 

Would you like Mildred, if you were to meet her?

What is Mildred's view of marriage? Do you think she wants deep down to marry, or to remain single? 

Why is church such an important context in this story?

Why was Mildred so intrigued by Everard Bone and his mother?

The two love triangles are a foundation of the story. Are they realistic? How aware is Mildred of her own place in one of them? Is Allegra the only villain of the piece? 


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 January, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904 by Anton Chekhov. It is published by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-14-044787-3.

Book notes

The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904is a collection of 13 tales written by Chekhov in the eight years before he died. They cover a range of themes, including the exploitation of the poor, and the romantic idealism of love outside marriage. The penultimate story, "The Bishop", obviously has an ecclesiastical theme, but the Church appears in other stories, too.

Author notes

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860. He studied medicine at university in Moscow, gradu­ating in 1884. During his student days, he began writing as a way of providing income for his parents. Initially, he worked as a doctor alongside his writing. His first collection of short stories,Motley Tales, was published in 1886; this was followed the next year by the Pushkin Prize-winningIn the Twilight.

Although he wrote many short stories, Chekhov was best known for his plays, which are still widely performed today. These includeThe Seagull(1896),The Three Sisters(1901), andThe Cherry Orchard(1904). He died shortly after this last one was published. In 1901, he married an actress, Olga Knipper, who took leading roles in his plays.

Books for the next two months:
February:The Compassion Questby Trystan Owain Hughes
March:The Spanish Holocaustby Paul Preston

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