Dear blog friends,
Thanks so much for preaching your love of Barbara Pym. You’ve called her funny and witty. When I found a copy of Pym’s Excellent Women in a used bookstore, I thought it Fortune smiling down upon me. Thanks are showered upon you for those moments.
Knowing this book is about Mildred, the old “spinster” who is unmarried in her 30s, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen. A married couple move into her apartment house — the likely-unfaithful anthropologist wife and the charming, likely-unfaithful husband. Their lovers quarrels sweep Mildred into their lives. Mildred, the good church-going woman who is friends with her (single) clergyman and his sister.
Should she find love in an unexpected place? Or with the dashing neighbor man? Perhaps the clergyman who has sworn of marriage but may have missed Mildred’s excellency? Or should she remain alone, proving a single woman is not a burden to herself nor society?
You were right: Pym is funny. Mildred is the first-person narrator, and that helps because I got all of her hesitancy and nose-wrinkling. Mildred, who doesn’t drink often, has a moment of realization:
. . .how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.
What is it that made you want to keep reading this novel, blog friends? For me, it was to see the scandalous snake-like characters get their comeuppance. Are they ousted or flee? Will things be made right? That’s one thing about this novel. It appears Pym takes a more realistic route than using fiction tropes. Perhaps that’s why she’s popular? You just never know what to expect. I wanted Mildred to come out on top, especially after she’s accused by pretty much everyone of being in love with every unattached man she’s spoken to. When she adamantly denies the accusations, she looks like she’s lying. Oh, Mildred. I could relate when I was in high school and college.
And that ending. I did not see it coming. Through much of the novel I was mad on Mildred’s behalf. Her brain sees problems, but her mouth doesn’t know how to say “no.” Is this what makes her an excellent woman? According to the other characters, yes. Reliable old Mildred. I was mad all the way to the end for Mildred, but I’m stuck on something: would she be happy with her own end? Is that what she wants for her life? Or is she going to have to have a “come to Jesus moment,” as my boss likes to say, about the direction things have taken?
It wasn’t what I expected, but I did happily read Excellent Women filled with anticipation. There are so many doors that could be opened in this slim text.
Grab the Lapels
The cover of my 1978 edition from Plume, an imprint of Penguin/Putnam