EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

One of Pym’s better books, I think, humorous, and even though written and set in 50’s England, strikes a familiar note today in probably any country.

Excellent women are  those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women whom everyone takes for granted. As our protagonist, Mildred,  a mild-mannered clergyman’s daughter, gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors–anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door–the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

Her friends and neighbors would often ask her to do things in a tone that suggested, “Oh, well, since you’re single, YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO, so could you please _______ for me?”  I think many unmarried women today get that same treatment, as do women who have no children at home who get asked to babysit since being currently without a child on the premises they have nothing to do.

Here’s a lovely quote for you:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

It has occurred to Mildred that she seemed to be always making cups of tea to soothe someone, to mark some small occasion, to reduce the anxiety of others.  And asks herself

So did he remember me like that after all — a woman who was always making cups of tea?  Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one.

I really do like English writers, and Barbara Pym has a true eye for observing the human condition.  As she says about our Mildred

We, [a confirmed bachelor friend] my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married by all means, the more the merrier. . . . Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn’t your talent for observation.

 

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