“Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym – the rehabilitation of spinsterhood

Through Mildred Lathbury, Pym gives an incisive, compassionately humorous voice to the routinely overlooked “Excellent Women” of post-war England

A tale of gentlefolk in early 1950s London

In “Excellent Women” Barbara Pym lets us see London, immediately after World War Two, through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter of modest independent means, who works mornings in a charity for aiding impoverished gentlewomen, is active in her local High Anglican church and is, at a little over thirty, on the cusp of becoming a spinster.

Mildred is a bright, public school educated woman who spends large portions of her life doing things for other people. She has a well-developed sense of the absurd and a, mostly compassionate, insight into the peculiarities of expectation, habit, manners and introspections that shape her own behaviours and the behaviours of the people around her.

The plot is largely a series of opportunities to explore the lives and choices of the, often ignored or patronised, “Excellent Women”, who make lives for themselves that aren’t centred around marriage and children.

No man steps into the same book twice: two re-read surprises

I re-read “Excellent Women”, after a gap of forty years, as part of a buddy read on BookLikes. Since my last read, the post-war years, with their rationing, their high levels of divorce and accelerating social change, have receded from being the years that my parents married in and have become History and in the process become a foreign country where taken for granted things, like living in bedsits with a shared bathroom, need to be explained. Over the same period, my age has nearly tripled and my experience has broadened. Consequently, my reactions to the text this time were very different from the last time. It confirmed to me that no man can step into the same book twice.

The first surprise I had was that Mildred Lathbury, was stronger and wittier than I remembered her. I suspect my twenty-something self mistook some of Mildred’s politeness for acquiescence. Now I see that much of it was controlled anger.

The second surprise was how clearly I heard echoes of a slightly more acerbic and world-weary Jane Austen in Pym’s writing. The novel opens with Mr Mallet (a name to conjure with) rivalling Mr Collins in his ability to be simultaneously pompous and patronising.  It prompts a self-assessment by the Mildred that is an inverse echo of “It is a fact universally acknowledged etc” in the opening of “Pride and Prejudice” but with Mildred declining to let go of her pride (self-respect) and bridling at Mallet’s prejudice:

“I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter, then one might really say there is no hope for her.”

The relatable Miss Lathbury

One of the comments that was made most frequently during the buddy read of “Excellent Women” was how relatable Mildred Lathbury was. We see the world through Mildred’s eyes and find that the view from there is honest and kind but also filled with rueful humour and questions about her own place in the world.

The first impression that Mildred makes is often of being a very conventional woman. As we get to know her better her wit, often expressed only inside her head, comes to the fore and we realise that acknowledging convention isn’t the same as being conventional.

For example, in her first meeting with her new neighbour, the married but very independent, I’m-an-anthropologist-Darling-so-I-don’t-have-time-to-cook Helena, Mildred sounds conventional when she asks herself:

“Surely wives shouldn’t be too busy to cook for their husbands? I thought in astonishment, taking a thick piece of bread and jam from the plate offered to me.”

and then shows her dry wit when she adds some thoughts about Rockingham, Helena’s husband: 

“But perhaps Rockingham with his love of Victoriana also enjoyed cooking, for I had observed that men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them.”

I think part of what makes Mildred relatable is that she’s not always sure of how she sees herself or how others see her. Even with access to Mildred’s inner voice, I was sometimes unsure of whether Mildred was a prisoner of her manners or simply has a deep acceptance of who she is.

For example, is she accepting or rejecting the label given to her when Helena says:

” ‘Of course you’ve never been married,’ she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women.”

As I got to know Mildred better, it seemed to me that she was someone who sees too accurately to comfort herself with anything but the truth and who is instinctively kind but still sometimes feels the weight of duty and carries it anyway. When she considers her future, she most often sees herself living out her life as a spinster who is seen by others as an eccentric but excellent woman.

Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate the quiet economy with which Pym gets these ideas across

“I forebore to remark that women like me really expectedvery little –nothing, almost.”

“Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”

Perhaps Mildred is relatable because, although she likes herself, she recognises that she lives on the margins of a society that expects things of her that she isn’t able to provide?

At one point, Mildred tells the story of her younger self attending a dance where she feels out of place and finds herself waiting in the toilets in the hope that the dance for which she didn’t have a partner would be finished before she returned, but knowing that it wouldn’t be.

That brought me back to the heart of all those times when I’ve found myself surrounded by people who expect certain social skills or talismans of competence from me that I can’t provide

I think it’s a mark of her strength of character that she describes the experience as “deep” rather than mortifying. It’s not unexpected or unbearable merely bleakly familiar. She seems to use it to reflect on how own connection or lack of it to society.

Another thing that makes Mildred relatable is how clearly she sees life and yet how much compassion for those of us living it she sustains. I love this quote, giving Mildred’s reaction to her best friend, Dora’s battles at the school she teaches at:

“I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us –the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”

She’s perfectly right. Life is like that. But it’s rare to find fiction that is honest enough to say so and still engaging enough not to be a chore.

Rehabilitating Spinsterhood

It seems to me that one of the main themes of “Excellent Women” is spinsterhood. Not whether it’s good or bad or whether it is a state that should be ended as swiftly as possible, but about what it means to live a full and valued life as a single woman.

Spinster has become pejorative and unfashionable. It is so unlike bachelor that we’ve had to invent bachelorette to capture the equivalent expectations of women.  

But what if spinsters were not just referred to as “excellent women” by way of disguising the extent to which their services were taken for granted but in true acknowledgement of a way of life, either chosen or accepted, and lived well?

As an introvert living in a very extrovert world, I have found myself constantly having to explain, defend, or disguise my need for solitude, the volume and variety of noise in my head when I am alone and my lack of pleasure in so many of the things that are meant to signify having a good time. 

It seems to me that creating a space to live a full life as an introvert in a society of extroverts has a lot of parallels to creating a space to live a full life as a spinster in a society built on the expectation of marriage/coupledom.

During the buddy read, we discussed a couple of articles that explore Pym’s rehabilitation of spinsterhood. If it interest you, take a look at: “Barbara Pym and the New Spinster.” and “Marvelous Spinster: Barbara Pym at 100″ 

Boy Men and whether or not to marry them

The women in this book may be excellent but I found all of the men to be irritating. None of them seem to have grown up. They manage an offensive combination of neediness, entitlement and disregard for others that I find staggering.

I’d write it off as Pym having a go except very similar, if somewhat more worldly, men appear in Lessing’s writing of the same period.

It would be nice if there was at least one man who knew what he wanted and didn’t need a woman to look after his poor helpless self.

Pym places a fine selection of men in Mildred’s life. The charming, charismatic but facile Rocky (what a name) provides an example of complacent, lazy, selfish sex appeal. Everard Bone (another wicked name) with his often mentioned meat that he is willing to share but unable to cook, provides an example of a more reliable but equally self-absorbed and emotionally distant man. Then there is the tedious, pigeon-feeding civil servant, Dora’s brother, who Mildred meets out of habit once a year for a lunch where he is always more engaged with the wine waiter than with her. Finally, there is the nice but weak Vicar that everyone except Mildred assumes Mildred would like to marry one day.

With this set of men before her, Mildred reflects on what would be added to her life and what would be lost if she were to marry.

I think her most unguarded reaction, which speaks to her heart rather than her sense of duty, is the White Rabbit reaction that she’d already mentioned to Bone and raising again when discussing the love of a “good woman” with the Napiers. Rocky with the ungracious thoughtlessness that only the truly charming are forgiven for, compares the love of a good woman to an army blanket, dull but useful. Mildred, her tongue loosened by wine, offers:

“‘Or like a white rabbit thrust suddenly into your arms,’ I suggested, feeling the glow of wine in me. ‘

Oh, but a white rabbit might be rather charming.’ 

‘Yes, at first. But after a while you wouldn’t know what to do with it.'”

I think that the possibility, however imaginary, of a relationship with Rocky, charmer of awkward WREN officers, was like a White Rabbit to Mildred.

Later, as we near the ambiguous close of the novel, Mildred considers the ways, dull and dutiful, in which a woman might be of use to a man and asks herself:

“Was any man worth this burden? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after all.”

I can’t decide if this is Mildred’s sense of duty or sense of humour talking. I suspect the latter. I believe her sense of self is so strong that neither being wife nor spinster would change her identity. Perhaps the power of the book and the charm of Mildred lie in the fact that I’m unsure of the answer but I care what choice she makes.

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