I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women out loud with Rachel. We try to make it a habit to read together every evening, partly because it’s a pleasant, intimate way to spend time, a way infinitely superior to watching TV together, and partly because we’re trying to establish a culture of bildung among ourselves for the eventual day when perhaps we’ll add a tiny third. I was required/privileged to sit for an hour every evening as I was growing up, in an extremely religious household, for “family devotions.” It’s an institution whose purposes of religious indoctrination I now deplore, but it really did contribute to my love for books and serious conversation. Reading aloud together, playing the piano, intentionally conversing are probably the secular echo, in my menage, of that regular childhood experience.
We’d heard Pym’s Excellent Women was hilariously funny, so we read it hoping to laugh. It’s not that funny, or it wasn’t to us. But it’s pretty interesting. It’s about the (lack of a) lovelife of an English woman during or a little after WWII, who grew up in a manse and now teeters on the edge of old maidenhood. A smart couple with a rocky relationship move in below her flat, the male half of whom she finds charming, while her best friends, the local (unmarried) vicar and his sister try to cope with the fact that he’s fallen in love with a boarder they take on.
The book’s actually pretty painful. Mildred Lathbury, the heroine, is smart and perceptive, kindhearted and good in an emergency, but her internal monologue is relentlessly self-deprecatory. As Rachel said when we read the last line, with a frown, “I thought she was going to stand up for herself!” Everybody uses her without consideration for her feelings or hopes: married and unmarried female friends, flirting husbands, eligible bachelors in need of people to cook their dinners and help them with secretarial work, even clergymen who are supposedly there to minister to them. This book is about how the spinsters of England, back then at any rate, if they were religious and docile, got burdened with all the emotional labor of everyone in their lives and were expected to assume the role of mother and wife-servant to the public at large. Endless tea-making, listening to other people’s troubles, lavishing time and attention where it isn’t requited, while enduring the condescension and mockery of the same people they served. It’s searing, the longer you think about it.
The funniest parts—because it was funny in places—are when Mildred questions some of these expectation of the spinster’s part, and gets slapped down. As here:
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.
What makes the novel ultimately pretty sad is that this landslide in the mind never really gets any momentum in Mildred’s own mind. As how could it?
I was reminded, reading Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, of Excellent Women, when I got to this passage:
Custom seemed to preserve [young girls] as a symbol of its most secret ideals, as an emblem of womanly chastity, virginity, and unworldliness. But what a tragedy it was if one of these young girls missed her time, if she was not yet married at twenty-five or thirty! Cusom pitilessly demanded of women of thirty and forty years of age that for the sake of “family” and “morality” they maintain this condition of inexperience and freedom from desire, of naivete although it no longer suited their age. But then the sweet picture usually turned into a sharp and cruel caricature. The unmarried maided became an article left on the shelf, and the left-over became an old maid, the butt of shallow derision of all the comic papers. Whoever picks up a volumen of the *Fliegende Blätter*, or any one of the humorous magazines of that period, will shudder at their stupid jeering at aging maidens, who with nerves disturbed did not know how to conceal their natural desire for love […] people ridiculed them with a lack of understanding that disgusts us today. For a society is always most cruel to those who disclose and reveal its secrets, when through dishonestly society itself has outraged Nature.
When I read this, shortly after finishing Excellent Women, it stopped me cold. Rachel and I agreed, as I mentioned earlier, that the book wasn’t as hilariously funny as it was reported to be, and it suddenly occurred to me that this supposed hilarity might have been a misplaced perception that the book was a contribution to the literature of mockery that Zweig talks about here. Perhaps many of its first readers thought it was so very funny because they believed there was something laughable in being a middle-aged unmarried woman? I have no idea if that’s true; but if is, that’s horrifying. If anything, Excellent Women is a book that demands empathy for the oppressed, the shows the real unhappiness of a supposedly laughable kind of person.