This is the second book in the Barbara Pym centenary readalong. I started it a few days early – I’m rebellious like that, and finished yesterday after work, with a smile on my face.
This was the first Barbara Pym novel that I ever read, and I so enjoyed it, that I was really looking forward to re-reading it. I wasn’t at all disappointed, in fact I may have loved it even more this time around.
This was Barbara Pym’s second novel to be published in 1952. Like Some Tame Gazelle much of the novel centres around the high Anglican Church community and people associated with it. The first person narrator is Mildred Lathbury, the daughter of a clergyman, brought up in a country vicarage she is unmarried in her thirties (this is the 1950’s so that’s fairly definitely spinsterish) she lives in a small flat with a shared bathroom close to the Anglican church that she regularly attends.
“Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.”
Also living close by are Father Malory a high Anglican priest who it would appear doesn’t believe in clergy marrying, which many people think a pity – that Mildred would have done very well for him. With Julian Mallory lives his sister Winifred. Julian and Winifred are Mildred’s closest friends. Mildred is apparently one of those “excellent women” who are always available to do good works, help at jumble sales, offer advice, and never marry.
When new neighbours move into the flat below Mildred it opens new horizons for her. The Napiers are rather different; Rockingham Napier has just come out of the Navy and is on his way home from Italy, while his wife Helena, an anthropologist gets the flat ready. Helena is happy to announce that she doesn’t go to church, and talks to Mildred in a way Mildred is unused to. At first Mildred is rather unsure of Helena, not sure she likes her, while she seems to get on well with practised charmer Rockingham. Through Helena Napier Mildred comes to meet Everard Bone, another anthropologist who spends quite a bit of time at the Napier’s flat.
The arrival of these people in Mildred’s life heralds further changes. The attractive widow of a clergyman moves into the flat at the top of the Mallory’s house. With the alarmingly named Allegra Grey come speculation and just a little gossip – among the good women of St. Mary’s. Mildred meanwhile has entered into a slightly peculiar friendship with the Napiers and eventually Everard Bone, as they let her in on their problems, ask her advice and come running up and down to Mildred’s flat with surprising frequency. I am not going to say any more about the plot of this lovely novel – as I know there are a lot of people reading Barbara Pym this year for the centenary – and I don’t want to inadvertently give spoilers.
Barbara Pym’s writing is brilliant, and this is a wonderfully funny and touching story. I must admit to having been brought up in a vicarage – a Methodist one – I don’t practise any religion now – but being brought up with church, jumble sales and morning services are part of my background so I loved the details of jumble sales and endless cups of tea.
“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 made me a little nostalgic, I laughed at the thought of Father Julian using an old cassock to help do some decorating in. My father would never have done that – I seem to remember they are quite expensive and so I’m fairly sure he never had more than one – and that was only ever worn on Sunday morning. If my father had got involved with decorating – he would have worn an old Harris check shirt and brown cords – rather baggy in the bum. Yet I loved the images of those middle aged ladies and the jumble sales, the flowers and who was to do what “Oh how true, how true” I cried – and actually not so very different to the English Methodist church in the 1970’s and 80’s when I was growing up. This is a delightful novel, witty and actually quite hard to put down. I found it an utter joy, and look forward to hearing what other Pym readers think of this one, whether it’s their first reading of it – or their umpteenth. Let me know if you’ll be reading Excellent Women for our February read a long and if you do – stop by and let me know what you think.