Excellent Women centers around Mildred Lathbury, a 30-something clergyman's daughter who lives on her own in a somewhat downtrodden area of London that was hit by the Blitz. She is very involved in her church; most people think she wants to marry the vicar, but she does not. At the start of the story, a new couple has moved in below Mildred. The Napiers married during the height of the war and now that things have settled down, they realize that they do not really have much in common. Mrs. Napier is an anthropologist and spends much of her time with another man, Mr. Everard Bone. Mr. Napier is charming, but Mildred can't help but feel that he isn't very dependable. And then there is the vicar and his sister, and their new suspiciously beautiful apartment renter. And Mildred's childhood friend, of course. In fact, there are so very many people in Mildred's life, all of whom expect her to make them priorities, that she has very little time to make herself a priority. After all, she is a single woman. What can she have to do with her time?
I honestly don't know what to make of this book. I think it cut so close to home in some ways, and was so deeply emotional in ways I did not expect, that I was taken aback. It was also such a wonderful, telling snapshot of London after the war on so many levels. About the changes in society, and the expectations of men and women, and the roles we all can play in other people's lives. But at the center of all this is Mildred, and I don't know how I feel about her.
I loved Mildred at the start of this book, when she states:
...I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. 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.
...so I turned on the wireless to distract me. But it was a women's programme and they all sounded so married and splendid, their lives so full and yet so well organised, that I felt more than usually spinsterish and useless.
Oh, poor Mildred. It is horrible to reach 30 years old and still feel as though none of your friends really knows you, and throughout this book, I felt that I knew Mildred better than anyone who came into contact with her daily. Mildred was there for every occasion, ready to help with a kind word and a spot of tea. People expected it of her; it's not as though she were ever inconvenienced by others. But they took her so much for granted, and as the story continues, you can feel it begin to wear on her. She is a lonely woman who just wants to feel a spark of something in her life.
High Rising with its dry wit and gently teasing sense of irony. But it's not that at all, really. There is humor, certainly, but to me it was overshadowed by the loneliness.
There was such a sense of sacrifice in this book. Not only was Mildred always helping other people before herself, but everyone also had ration cards, eggs and meat were very scarce, one of the churches Mildred attends was bombed in an air raid, she and her friends rarely buy new clothes and everyone scavenges at church sales. I know that Britain was on rations for decades after the war, but the way Pym described meals and that sort of information in this book really highlighted the situation for me, particularly as it complemented Mildred's own life.
One thing about this book I didn't particularly enjoy was that there was a lot of Church terminology I did not understand and had no context for. There were the usual disparaging remarks about Roman Catholics, but Meredith herself was an "Anglo-Catholic." One of her friends was named Sister Blatt and she mentioned priest's collars and the like, too, so I was very confused as to what religion everyone was. Is Ango-Catholic another term for Anglican? If anyone is able to enlighten me, please do!
I don't know if I've given anyone a sense of whether I liked this book or not, and I think that's a good thing. I found it much more morose than I expected, and I think that was a letdown for me as I wanted a lighter book. I do, however, feel it's a book that will stay with me. And I think it's a very important book. Sometimes women are perfectly happy being on their own. Just because they can sometimes feel lonely about it, that doesn't mean they want to completely change their lifestyle and get married or obtain a roommate or move somewhere new. They just... want to be as they are. Comfortable.