Saturday, April 27, 2013

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much.

So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back.

Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons and lengthy intercessions. They always spoke to my mother – they had know her since she was a small girl coming to church with her own mother – and whenever something was going on, be it a coffee morning or a jumble sale, they were always there and they were always busy.

When I was a small girl I thought that they were ancient, but looking back I think most of them would have been in their sixties. Years layer my mother used to visit one of those ladies when she was housebound, and I remember my mother telling me that she was always so welcoming and so appreciative. Not long after she did her nephew appeared on our doorstep with two carved elephants. My mother had mentioned in passing that she remembered her parents having a similar pair, and she had made a note that nother was to have her elephants.

I’m rambling, but I’m going to come to the point now. Mildred Lathbury – the excellent woman who tells this story was so real, so utterly believable that I am quite prepared to believe that I might have been looking at her back and her hat back in the day.

Excellent Women
Mildred was the daughter of a clergyman, and she had been brought up in a country vicarage, but when she found herself alone in the world she moved to a small flat near the Anglican church that she regularly attended. She was a stalwart of that church and had formed a close friendship with Winifred Mallory. She was the vicar’s sister and, as both sister and brother were ummarried, they lived together in the vicarage. It had been suggested that Mildred would be an excellent wife for Julian Mallory …

New arrivals heralded change.

First new neighbours moved into the flat below Mildred’s. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, arrived first, and Mildred was taken aback when Helena spoke to her freely and frankly, when she announced that she didn’t go to church, when she said that she didn’t believe in housework. Her husband, Rockingham had just come out of the navy and was on his way home from Italy. Mildred wasn’t sure if she liked Helena but she was intrigued by her, and by new possibilities.

And then the Mallory’s decided to let a room. Allegra Grey was a clergyman’s widow and she seemed to be the ideal person to share the vicarage. She wasn’t, and some worked that out more quickly than others. There was much speculation, and a good deal of gossiping.

Mildred’s relationship with the Napiers was lovely to watch. She was flattered to be asked for help and advice, and she came to realise that marriage was far, far more complicated than she had realised. And that she was rather more involved than she really wanted to be. Events at the vicarage offered interesting parallels and contrasts. Church events provided a wonderful backdrop. And I haven’t even mentioned Everest Bone …

Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable.

It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.

Mildred’s voice rang completely true, and I did like her. She was a genuinely nice woman, practical intelligent, and dependable. She didn’t think marriage was the answer to everything, she liked having her independence and her own space, but she did rather like the idea of being married, of having a companion in life.

And now I have just one more word – excellent!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mariana by Monica Dickens

This may be the loveliest opening to a novel that I have ever read.

"Mary sometimes heard people say: 'I can't bear to be alone." She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself."
It captured my own feelings perfectly, and expressed them more beautifully than I ever could.

Mary escaped to the country with just her small terrier dog, Bingo, in tow. Her husband was at sea, in the navy, and the country was at war. Because she wanted to be quiet, to remember, to think.

It was lovely watching Mary and Bingo settle in, lovely to be reminded of the depth of Monica Dickens' understanding of character and of her talent for catching exactly the right details to paint a perfect picture.

I was particularly taken with her understanding that a terrier can be sound asleep and alert at the same time ...

The peaceful scene was disturbed when Mary switched on the wireless, when she heard that her husband's ship had been hit. There were survivors, there was hope, but Mary had a night to get through before she found out the next morning if her husband was alive or dead. It was a sleepless night, and as she lay awake Mary turned over memories in her mind.

She remembered her childhood, with a mother who had been widowed in the last war and who worked as a dressmaker to support them. Her husband's family would have helped but she didn't want to be beholden to them. It was enough that they gave Mary lovely, idyllic summer holidays in the country. And a place in a bigger family.

She remembered going to drama school with grand plans, and coming to realise that she was on the wrong path. Fashion college in Paris was a much better idea. She could have a lovely time and she could play a part in the family business. Mary had a wonderful time in Paris, and she made a marvellous catch. But even the most marvellous catch is not necessarily the right catch.

Mary found her happy ending back in England, at the most unexpected moment.

Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love. And Mary was real, alive, and her emotional journey was so utterly real. There were highs and lows, tears and laughter. Every emotion a young woman might go through. And so many incidents, so many moments to recollect. All of this was observed so beautifully, with understanding, intelligence, and just the right amount of empathy.

But if Mary's life was the foreground, the background was just as perfectly realised. Her world was as alive as she was, and every character who was part of that word, even if only for a short while, was caught perfectly.

I loved watching over Mary's life. It was an ordinary life, but every ordinary life is unique and Monica Dickens highlighted that quite beautifully.

And I could have stayed in her world quite happily, but morning eventually came, and Mary had to face whatever news of her husband might come. And when it came I had to leave. I'd love to know what happened in the next chapters of Mary's life, but failing that I'll go back and read about the years I know all over again one day. Because this is a lovely book, and a lovely way to get lost in another life and another world.