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!

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This is on my TBR pile. I even have the Virago Modern Classic designer collection cover that you featured. I must move it closer to the top of the pile!

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