As part of my English degree I wrote an essay defending Jane Austen on charges of triviality. There she was, so some gruff academics sniped, writing about bonnets and the regiment while a war raged across the Channel and the smoke of the guns of two foreign revolutions still lingered over a jittery Georgian Britain.
I was incredulous that I had to put pen to paper (quite literally, this was the ‘90s) and stand up for Miss Austen on this ridiculous charge. The small things are the important things, they’re what make us human and unless we understand ourselves at our smallest, most trivial, we will never understand – or care – about war or revolutions. Austen may not have been writing books about the Napoleonic Wars, but those seemingly inconsequential little domestic matters are what it is to be human. Love, hate, petty little squabbles, “these little frictions” as the protagonist in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women puts it – are ultimately what send us off to war and drive us to revolution.
This accusation of triviality is one that I’ve only ever heard thrown at female writers, and one that was lobbed so much at Barbara Pym that she hung up her typewriter in the 1960s when London was swinging so violently it made itself dizzy with pomposity.
Pym only came back into favour in 1977 when two male heavyweights Philip Larkin (a master of extracting the art out of the ordinary) and David Cecil said it was okay to like her. Larkin’s exact words were: “I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen”. Just as well, what with one of them being very dead. And the man was a librarian.
I recently re-read Pym’s Excellent Women for a book club having first read it little over a year ago one rainy Sunday. It’s a book that holds up well, if not better, under a second reading as those human truths that are buried under a seemingly throwaway plot bubble to the surface on closer scrutiny. Pym’s world is a world of jumble sales and knitting; the Church of England and weak tea; shared bathrooms and depressing pork chop suppers for one. Excellent Women is an amusing, rather poignant novel that deals with the everyday drabness of life with a wry eye.
Mildred Lathbury is the novel’s protagonist, one of the excellent women of the title who are holding dreary post-war Britain together like a pair of darned socks. Unashamedly spinsterish at the ripe old of 30 (ish), Mildred’s closest friends are the vicar Julian Malory and his overly-romantic sister, Winifred. Mildred is a woman who’s “always making tea”, her life one of “clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works”. For all of Pym’s comparisons to Austen, Mildred is no Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. She’s fussy and straightlaced, school-marmish and rather dull.
But Mildred’s quiet life is gatecrashed by the arrival of new neighbours (with whom she shares a bathroom) the Napiers. Husband Rocky is a charming, dashing naval officer, wife Helena an anthropologist and domestic slut (sometimes she even leaves the dishes for her husband to do). Mildred is intrigued and appalled by them in equal measure.
Simultaneously, things over at the vicarage are heating up as the Vicar becomes engaged to their recently arrived lodger, the pretty widowed Allegra Gray. And then there’s Everard Bone, a cool, stern and rather mysterious acquaintance/colleague of Helena Napier who, like Mildred, is also a fan of Him Upstairs. What exactly is his role to be in Mildred’s life?
Excellent Women is a novel, to paraphrase Alexander McCall Smith in the introduction, about nothing and everything. It’s a tender book with a veil of depressing resignation hanging over it that says more about the human condition than bigger, brasher, more revered novels that deal with the Big Stuff. Don’t read Pym for rollercoaster, rollicking plots, but for the gentle observations of the merry-go-round of life.
by Suzanne Elliott