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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Excellent Women

Excellent Women (Penguin Classics)
Yesterday, our group met to discuss, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I will begin here the same way I began the discussion, with Pym's interesting story. Pym was born in 1913 in England. She enjoyed a fairly successful writing career with her first 5 books in the 1950s and early 60s, but then her 6th book was curiously refused by the publisher. Many critics today think that her more subtle style and quietly observant stories about the lives of British genteel class were not appreciated amidst the chaos of the 1960s.

And then, by pure chance, Pym was back in the spotlight again when in 1977 Philip Larkin called Pym the most underrated writer of the century. Interest in Pym was renewed. Her work was in high demand and she published a few more novels and was nominated for the Booker prize before her death from cancer in 1980.

Although one of her earliest works, Excellent Women is still considered among Pym's best. In fact, many feminist scholars look back on this novel as depicting the beginning stirrings of modern feminism. Here is the basic plot (edited) from the publisher (Penguin):
"Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a novel about a woman named Mildred Lathbury who is living in London in the 1950s. A self-proclaimed spinster, virtuous almost to a fault, intelligent, and entirely without family, Mildred is alone and content to be so. As the story begins, she is leading a quiet life of churchgoing and part-time charity work, with the Malorys—Julian, a pastor and single man, and his frazzled, sweet sister, Winifred—as her dearest friends.

However, as Mildred herself notes, “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” (p. 5). And so upon her too-comfortable existence enter a host of unsettling and decidedly unvirtuous characters: the Napiers—Helena and Rockingham—a glamorous and unconventional couple who become Mildred’s housemates; Allegra Gray, the calculating widow who destabilizes Mildred’s relationship with the Malorys; and Everard Bone, the aloof anthropologist who befriends Mildred against all of her expectations.

The Napiers’ marriage is on the rocks, due to Helena’s fierce dedication to her anthropological fieldwork and to dashing Rockingham’s effortless romancing of every woman he encounters. As their go-between and confidant, Mildred suddenly finds herself swept into their milieu of romantic drama and self-important science. Two love triangles develop: between the Napiers and Everard Bone, and between Allegra Gray, Julian Malory, and, to her surprise, Mildred herself. Even as she expresses her intent to preserve her independence, a number of potential suitors present themselves. The more Mildred tries to extricate herself, the more involved she becomes, as each of her friends depends on her to sort out the unflattering messes they make for themselves.

Yet behind her plain and patient facade, capable Mildred turns out to be a more ruthless social observer than even the anthropologists whose job it is to “study man.” Excellent Women is a romantic comedy that makes the decidedly unromantic suggestion that its narrator might be happiest alone. Mildred’s wit and independence subvert the stereotype that “excellent women” are dull. Set against the backdrop of postwar London, a city sorting through the disruptions of wartime bombing, the beginnings of feminism, and the end of colonialism, the novel offers effortless social critique that is as entertaining as it is enlightening."

The first point, after background info, I made to the group that Excellent Women (EW from now on) is not historical fiction. It is more like Jane Austen. It is novel of social commentary about its own time that happens to be in our past, but it was written in its own time. It is a story of women's lives in the past, written by one who lived through it. This is key to understanding the novel.

We had such an easy, conversational discussion about EW that I barely used the prepared questions. I began by asking about people's impressions of the novel. What was repeated over and over again was how gentle, wonderful, and soft the book was, yet it delved into serious issues; issues about marriage, the place of the single woman in society, the way people chose to live their lives, and how people interact with each other.

One participant pointed out an example of how this novel was both gentle and sophisticated by reading a section in which Mildred brings a hot water bottle to be and thinks she should read Dostoevsky. This is also an example of Pym's subtle but spot on wit and humor.

A few people were upset that Mildred was always helping others. They were upset that she was being used and disliked her for not showing more "gumption." But then we talked about specific time and place which Pym recreates for us, and we realized that Mildred could not have been any other way while staying authentic. And we loved her authenticity.

We were also very lucky that one of our participants lived as a single woman in England during the years in which this novel is set. We talked about how life in post-WWII England was so different from here in America. They still had rations in 1952. Mildred goes to a bomb out church where the congregants use the one preserved aisle for Ash Wednesday services. Destruction and upheaval from the war is an everyday occurrence in their lives. That and they sure do drink a lot of tea.

EW is a comedy of manners that both tells us how people lived and poked fun at the absurdity of it all. The humor is subtle; in fact, the entire book is quite subtle. We used the example of Mildred worrying about whether or not she wanted to cook the meat of one of her suitors. He fluctuations between wanting to and not wanting to "cook his meat," are hilarious on so many levels.

We also talked about the excellent women of the title. Mildred is a selfless "excellent woman" who is single and devoted to helping others and helping to keep her local parish running. One participant mourned the passing of the excellent women. There is not enough civility left in the world, she lamented. She felt that 10 years after EW there are no more excellent women, They had disappeared. Feminism moved to a new stage and what was good about excellent women was lost to an entire generation.

We talked about Midlred's strength, but not in a traditional post-feminist sense. Mildred saw the best in everyone. Her role was to be relied upon and she accepted it. She did question her choices though and was always concerned about living a full life. Although some participants felt Mildred was used by other too often, overall we felt that those she helped all appreciate what she did for them at the end of the novel.

The ending of this novel is open. It is a true slice of life novel in that sense. Mildred hints that she feels change coming to her world. She could see the positives about marrying Julian or Everard, who have both awkwardly made it clear that they would like to marry her by the novel's end. She also loves and values her independence. Her life is full of friends, work, and church without having to be a wife.

What Mildred's ultimate choice is was discussed by our group at the session's end. Most felt she would continue the way she was with a few changes, like becoming Everard's indexer for his Antropoligcal writings. A few thought she got married to one of the men. The book purposely leaves the answer open because what she does is not the point; it is Mildred's observations about the people around her, their pettiness, their obsession with the details of daily life, and the comical nature of it all is Pym's purpose. However, for those in the group who were dying to know, Pym does mention Mildred in a later novel. I shared the information with the group, and if you want to know click here (1st paragraph gives the answer).

Overall, we loved immersing ourselves in Mildred's world. Personally, I am glad I spent time with Mildred.

Readalikes: After reading Excellent Women, I realized it had so many connections to books both from its time and after, books in England and America. Many critics have compared Pym to Jane Austen. Both women wrote about the manners and constraints of their times with a sharp eye and wit. Specifically, I would suggest Mansfield Park for fans of Excellent Women. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady also hits many of the same themes and issues in Excellent Women.

I would also suggest Willa Cather, Sandra Dallas's Persian Pickle Club (which our group already discussed here) and Elizabeth Berg's WWII drama about the choices women make Dream When You Are Feeling Blue (which my group discussed here).

In my research I also found that Eudora Welty, Anne Tyler, and Mary Gordon are among the writers who name Pym as one of their favorite writers.

In terms of nonfiction, there are a few books that mention Excellent Women that look interesting. Smile of Discontent: Humor, Gender, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction by Eileen Gillooly and From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature by Barbara Frey Waxman. Many critics argue that the world of 1950s England and the lives of its women which Pym reconstructed in her novels planted the seeds of modern feminism. Those who are interested in the past and future of feminism may want to look at this book, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman.

Excellent Women is also mentioned in a book I love and use to help readers at the RA desk all of the time, 100 One-Night Reads. This is a great resource for those readers who just want something "good" to read and cannot elaborate. Handing this book over to these patrons to let them read the 2-3 page commentaries gives them a pre-approved list of some great, short books.

Finally, the Barbara Pym Society has a great website with many links to further reading.

That should keep your reading for awhile.

Next month we will move into fantasy to discuss The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

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