Even the name Pym evokes an England we've learned to expect from literature, films, Masterpiece Theatre dramas, and all those mystery series which can be as addictive as fish-and-chips with malt vinegar. I can imagine the thirty-ish main character, Mildred Lathbury, someday leaving her unfashionable London neighborhood in order to age into a future as some postcard-perfect village's equivalent of Agatha Christie's spinster-sleuth Miss Marple.
Yet Lathbury, chief among the novel's “excellent women,” doesn't fit the Marple model.
She is kindly, yes; sharply observant, yes; content to serve others' needs, yes. But unlike Miss Marple, she is attuned to the comedic and sees a genteel form of hilarity within the bland, predictable, unimaginative routines and people that fill her days.
“Barbara Pym is certainly a comic writer,” says British literary figure A. N. Wilson in his introduction to her re-issued novel first published in 1952; “This book is one of her richest and most amusing.” He also provides a definition of the types of post-World War II femmes who inspired the title: “Excellent women are women that men take for granted. In a parish, they are there to help make tea, arrange flowers in the church and provide companionship for the more boring members of the congregation with whom the priests can't be bothered.””
How times have changed! Realizing the incredulity that current readers, especially women, might find in this, Wilson's introduction provides historic reminders: that the story is set in “a decade of exceptional austerity” after the end of a cataclysmic war that left England with coffers depleted, crushing numbers of war dead, and with large swaths of her fabled “green and pleasant land” laid waste. There followed years of economic austerity. The novel's time-line finds the characters eating sparse meals of unappetizing food and enduring other privations. Those in Lathbury's circle, for example, cherish the rare luxury of a glass of wine which, pre-war, had been among the routine pleasures of middle-class living.
Still, Pym portrays her women as keeping stiff upper lips - as they'd learned to do in the war in which, as noted in the introduction, “women had played a key role in victory.” Seven years later, Lathbury, a university graduate, accepts her lot as part-time toiler at a charity aiding “Distressed Gentlefolk.” All in her narrow circle appear to find whatever comfort they can in “old customs and manners” - one explanation, it would seem, of the women's acquiescence to subservient status.
Does this seem too bleak a time and setting for inspired satire? It definitely isn't! The comedic core of all Pym's novels, Wilson suggests, is “a recognition of life's limitations.” And, he might have added, an appreciation, such as Lathbury's, of life's amusing but embarrassing moments:
“Rocky showed me how to twist it round my fork but I found it very difficult to manage and it made conversation quite impossible. Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one's struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti.”
There is rich satiric fodder in Pym's characters, especially the band of clueless worker bees, mainly unmarried parish women, who buzz around their vicar, Father Julian Malory, and who are the mainstay of church events such as an entrenched Brit tradition, the jumble sale. There, attendees might, year after year, reject such offerings as “a mangy fur with mad staring eyes priced at sixpence” but eagerly contribute to a brisk trade in parish gossip while venting run-of-the-mill resentments.
“I saw him go to the hatch, come away with a plate of brightly coloured iced cakes and then offer one to Mrs. Gray. Sister Blatt and I looked at each other. 'Well', I began rather doubtfully, 'the vicar is always charming to new parishioners, or he ought to be. That's a known thing.'”
Pym's choicest comedic character is the aged Mrs. Bone, mother of one of the few eligible males in Mildred Lathbury's life. He, Everard, is an anthropologist apparently too inattentive to be embarrassed by the old lady's daffy pronouncements, such as this conversation opener: “Miss Jessop and I are very much interested in the suppression of woodworm in furniture.”
“'But we hadn't got any tea,' she pointed out indignantly.'”
Later, the old lady confides. “You will hardly believe this, Miss -er-but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom when I felt something drop in my lap. And do you know what it was?” She turned and peered at me intently. I said that I had no idea. . . “From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually in my own drawing room.”
At novel's end something definitely non-odious and even mildly cheering has dropped in Lathbury's lap. It leaves her believing, in her typical unassuming way, “as if I might be going to have what Helena called 'a full life' after all.”