Thursday, 19 February 2015

Excellent Women

Sometimes there is just nothing for it but to pick up an old Virago Modern Classic and devour it, and being in the depths of gloom that are a British winter, Barbara Pym's Excellent Women will bring a much-needed slice of humour and comfort as well as a tantalising peek into life in a small English village in a world largely gone by, but whose echoes will still be all-too familiar to many today!

I had never read anything by Barbara Pym before, but had been hearing her name for years. I saw this copy in an Oxfam Bookshop and snatched it right up. I'm a sucker for their covers, but I was also feeling grim that day: unloved, exhausted and, frankly, taken for granted! No doubt misguided and brought about largely due to the weather and a long run of back-to back viruses in the house; nonetheless, the book felt like the perfect antidote.

And so it was! Even the title is marvellous and hints at what lies within, which is basically a beautiful and quietly funny observation of the life of Mildred Lathbury, a woman heading rapidly toward spinsterhood. She is the daughter of a clergyman and, as such, well-versed in coping with "most of the stock situations". She has a wry talent for seeing the small but telling details and treats us to very funny vignettes of life in post-war Britain.

Here is one example: "The sight of Sister Blatt, splendid on her high, old-fashioned bicycle like a ship in full sail, filled me with pleasure." That line made me laugh out loud. On another occasion: "But as I had been at home in my village and she had been in Torquay the acquaintance had never prospered." Oh, how I wish people still spoke this way!

Pym is also brilliant at nailing the small truths of life that we never think of until they are pointed out to us and then we realise, "Oh, but that's exactly it!" How about these gems: "I began piling cups and saucers on a tray. I suppose it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place to choose than the sink, where neither of the men would follow me?" Or: " My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink." I think all of us can relate to her here!

And I will treat you to one last observation that will perhaps resonate more with British readers: "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 so 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." And that last sentence really sums it up -- there are little rituals and mainstays in small, English villages that are not to be taken lightly and Barbara Pym has teased them out majestically. You will be well occupied by a few hours in her company!

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