Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Barbara Pym's Excellent Women

"Basically, all I ever do is read...and I read English novels. One of my favorite novelists is Barbara Pym, who is an underrated writer, like Jane Austen. Everybody thinks she's just darling, but she is not just darling, she's really tough. One of the great things about Barbara Pym is that the food in Barbara Pym is just wonderful."

Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking

Barbara Pym is one of those writers I kept coming across. Lots of people note her lack of acclaim the way they talk about American writer Paula Fox. My first encounter with Pym took place in my early twenties; an older friend insisted I would just love her. I didn't. I was too young. I had not read Jane Austen or Dickens and knew nothing about English moral life. Even now, had I not read all of Elizabeth David, I'm certain much of Excellent Women would've slipped past me.

Like many overlooked writers, Barbara Pym has a devoted coterie of fans, who have put up this helpful site.

I found Excellent Women used, and it is indeed a funny, vibrant picture of English postwar life. Mildred Lathbury, daughter of a clergyman, is in her early thirties, unmarried, with a small income. She assists at the Gentlewomen's Society, helping ladies fallen on hard times. When not there, she is often at the home of Vicar Julian Malory, somewhat ineptly looked after by his spinster sister Winifred. What Winifred lacks in domestic ability she compensates for in adoration and an innocent good nature. Mildred herself is good-natured, at least outwardly, one of those "excellent women" the English evidently relied upon at one time to shoulder life's more unpleasant burdens: listening to marital woes, meeting furniture movers, negotiating the politics of the church jumble sale. Only Mildred carries on with the reader, all too aware of her desexed, increasingly settled ways. When dramatic couple Helena and Rocky Napier rent the flat below her, she is drawn into all manner of marital upheaval.

As a contemporary reader, it is difficult at times to understand Mildred's incredible tolerance. All the characters, presumably friends, wish to use her in some fashion; she is the go-between for Helena and Rocky, nearly ends up cohabitating with another spinster (I will not divulge plot) when in truth she loves living alone. She is oft found making tea for some unhappy person, as she observes:

"I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion." (205)


"I was hoping..."
"What were you hoping?"
"That you might suggest making a cup of tea. You know how you always make a cup of tea on 'occasions' ..."

So he did remember me like that after all--a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one." (222)

Don't make one! You want to cry. Tell Rocky to shove off! But Mildred doesn't, as it goes against all her training to do so. She reminds herself to behave, as is the Christian way, all the while rueing her faintly ridiculous state. Like Margaret Drabble's Candida Wilton, Midred is that overlooked quantity: a single, plain woman with intelligence. One imagines the arrival of this book, in 1952, quite turned some heads. One certainly hopes so.

For all the tea--and vast quantities are consumed--the food is not all that great in this book, as England is still suffering from postwar rationing. The sole meal that reads even faintly appetizing is a solitary lunch: a salad dressed with "hoarded olive oil" (156), Camembert cheese, a fresh loaf of bread, and greengage plums. Certainly the pain of rationing is aptly described; the meals take more from Atwood, that describer of awful meals, than they do Elizabeth David.

Meanwhile, I now find myself without the rest of Pym, and longing, finally to read the rest of her works.

Laurie Colwin's quore comes from More Home Cooking, Harper Perennial, 1992.

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women. Plume Fiction, New York. 1952, 1978.


Anonymous mel said...

Cool...I coincidentally got this book for Christmas! I'll look forward to reading it.

February 03, 2007 3:30 PM  

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