Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: Excellent Women

Excellent Women
Oh, Barbara Pym, how you toyed with me.  Here I was, thinking that your books were cozy reads with light humor and English country hi jinks in all the faded glory of empire after Word War II.  Boy, was I wrong!  Excellent Women does have light humor, but it is certainly not what I would call a cozy read.  (Others do, though, so maybe it's just me.)

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.


Excellent Women
Immediately, I knew that she had the sort of self-deprecating humor that I adored.  But she was also so unsure of herself.  It seemed like every other page, she was getting embarrassed over very little things.  I think if I knew her, I would shake her and tell her to grow a spine.  But even though she upset me, her lack of confidence was a product of her world.  Everyone around Mildred thinks she wants to get married.  And as she is not married, she must have screwed up in the past.  But Mildred likes being on her own.  She enjoys having her own place, setting her own schedule, and keeping her own counsel.  The difficulty is that no one seems to understand this.  And so she goes through life thinking perhaps there is something wrong with her.  Her loneliness seemed to take on a tangible form, making her feel like life left her behind.

...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.

Excellent Women
And that's where this book surprised me.  I expected Excellent Women to be similar to 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.

23 comments:

  1. I can't believe I haven't read anything by this author. This book sounds like it would be right up my alley for like Mildred I am happily unmarried and it drove my friends crazy during my 30's- they aren't my friends anymore as I didn't join their club. I think I may read this and am glad I won't expect a lighter book. I like to know what I'm getting. Great review as usual

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  2. I got nothing on the whole Catholic/Anglican/Anglo-Catholic question. But I had the same expectations mismatch with Barbara Pym - cozy is what I was expecting, and she is so not that. I'm on the fence about her, but I think I'll have an easier time with her now that I know what to expect going in.

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  3. I am super intrigued by this book. I love books set in England during this time period and your review really peaked my interest. Looking forward to checking it out!

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  4. bookmagic- YES! I don't think my friends are like that, really (at least not close friends), but many people seem to think there is a step to my life I have not completed. Sigh.

    Jenny- I am on the fence about her, too, but like you- glad to know for the next book not to expect a cozy!

    Amused- Yes, I like books during this period, too! Though I prefer the inter-war period, I admit :-)

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  5. I am no ecclesiastical expert, but in the Anglican church (formed in the Henry the 8th imbroglio), there is what is called high church and low church. High church is protestant, but retains much Roman Catholic symbolism and ritual. Low church is more like other protestant religions, presbyterianism and such. They are types of the same organization however, and people would attend the kind they felt most comfortable with.

    Thanks for the review!

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  6. Hm, well I can't always want to read a book. I need to have some sort of self control too :) So not the book for me I think

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  7. Whata great review, Aarti. I really like Barbara Pym’s writing and this sounds excellent, if not a little uncomfortable. I have just finished a very sad book about a spinster and it was very painful for me to read. As a single woman I often feel slighted or patronised or pitied by women in relationships and it frustrates me no end. I of course must be free to babysit constantly, because I don’t have a boyfriend, so I have nothing else to do with my time. And I must be absolutely DESPERATE to meet someone, because my life is so empty as it is. Sometimes books that are about spinsters just cut a little too close to the bone of my own experience for me to fully enjoy. I’m not ready to be classed as a spinster yet – I’m a bit young for that – but I do wish the world wouldn’t take the attitude that your life is less full and interesting and worthwhile if you go through it without a partner.
    Anglo Catholic would be the equivalent of Episcopalian, I should think. It’s basically a Protestant who likes all the decoration, finery and ritual of the Catholic church in their church services, but who isn’t a Catholic in the sense of believing in the authority of the Pope, etc. There was an enormous vogue for this sort of Protestantism in England at the end of the 19th century. The Rossetti family were very involved with it in London, I think.

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  8. At first glance, this is probably not a book I will pick up. But you have me curious about it now. I especially like what you wrote in the last paragraph, and if this book echoes that sentiment, it is something I would definitely want to read. I don't think I will get most of the Church references either, but I can still try.

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  9. Thought-provoking review. I haven't even read the book and am sitting here thinking about its complexities and the depth of feelings you convey about it! It sounds like a lovely, though mildly depressing, read, especially her liking being alone but feeling a certain way because of what others think of her.

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  10. I have never read anything by Pym, but have heard some good things. I really liked this review, Aarti. I feel like you captured the spirit and flavor of the book, along with the conundrum of being single in a world that wants to marry you off. I think that I would really like to read this book. Coincidentally, I am reading a book right now that deals with a lot of these same issues, so it's cool to have seen this review.

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  11. I hadn't heard of this book until I read your review. Thanks for bringing it to my attention because I think I would find it interesting, being another unmarried woman who is quite happy being single at the moment!

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  12. Barbara Pym is one of my most favourite-est authors. The first of hers that I read was Quartet in Autumn and then I read such a bunch that I refer to that period as My Barbara Pym Blur! ::contented laugh::

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  13. I loved your review, particularly as you have "nailed" the frequent commentary that sees Pym's novels as "cosy". They are so not cosy, in my view. At the same time, i really enjoy reading them over and over - often laughing aloud at some of the comments on life in general.

    I have had the opportunity to read some of Pym's short stories, some of which are published in the Society's journal, "Greenleaves". They are even sharper than the novels, which have been polished : Pym was a great redrafter of her work.

    Thank you for your review, I am glad that I have googled BP and thus come upon it.

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  14. I have loved everything I have read by Pym and I think your review is very insightful. I am enjoying her stories so much, yet there is much in them that is unsettling. I feel acutely aware of an undercurrent of sadness that runs through much of her work. About the religious aspect...this was a little confusing for me in the beginning but as I read more by her, the context is clearing that up quite a bit. For all the ups and downs of Pym's books, I do get a cozy feeling when the subject of food and gathering for tea comes up. There is a bit of closure regarding Mildred weaved into Pym's Jane and Prudence.

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  15. Stacy- Oh, I didn't know that! I think at the end of the book, you get an idea of where she might end up, though I don't know if it entirely makes sense to me. I checked, though, and my thought was correct! Thanks for letting me know.

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  16. I've been dying to read this ever since you mentioned it to me in conversation, and even more so now. It does sound lonely and dark, but if I expect that going in hopefully I'll be fine.

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  17. I think that Mildred ending up with Everard Bone is another example of Pym's comic wit. Their marriage is referred to by an anthropology librarian as rather a pity as the relationship between Helene Napier and Edward was so important because of their interest in anthropology.

    Romance is not seen as a reason for weddings in Pym novels.

    I can't remember whether it is in J&P or a later novel, possibly A Few Green Leaves, where we are told that Helen and Rocky have a baby. This is a typical Pym device. And one I rather like.

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  18. Very interesting review. It definitely made me think. I have never read Pym, but I really want to. I think this advance warning not to expect anything cosy might help?

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  19. As CarrieM says, the high church Anglican is sometimes referred to as Anglo-Catholic because it retained the forms of Catholicism after the Reformation. They like "smells and bells" (that is, incense and ritual).

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  20. Thanks for the review. I've got No Fond Return Of Love on my shelf, and have been putting off reading it as I wasn't quite sure what "mood" I have to be in to read it. (I've never read a Pym before).

    Your review's given me a better idea of that, as well as made me more curious about Excellent Women, which I've heard "excellent" things about, if you may excuse the repetition.

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  21. Excellent review Aarti! I actually have this book on my bookshelf but haven't read it, yet (my partner read a couple of Barbara Pym's books ages ago, I just haven't gotten round to reading them) - mybe that ought to be my challenge, to read all of the books in the house which I haven't read yet before I'm allowed to buy any more!

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  22. It's been too long since I read this book but I do recall being extremely impressed with Pym's writing.

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  23. I admit I am charmed by your honest and incisive review. Hello from a new follower btw! I don't know if I want to read this book right now but it is certainly someting to read in the future.

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