In the last post, I said I was taking a break from Barbara Pym to get through other books in my stack. Haha, JUST KIDDING. In truth, there was a bit of an emergency. Book Club is this Sunday, and I chose Excellent Women. The Chancellor has been borrowing my copy, and we both realized he would probably not be done in time for me to read it before Sunday. So…to the library I went and bypassed the other books on my nightstand.
Excellent Women is filled with the kinds of themes and ideas that Pym writes about, only more so. Mildred Lathbury is a woman in her early thirties, the daughter of a clergyman, and unmarried. Of the worst fates in prim and proper middle-to-upper class England, the worst is being a spinster. Mildred is quickly shunted to that category, so she is forced to fill her days with employment, church occupations, and other concerns to maintain her respectability and status. But when the Napiers live into the flat below hers, she begins to question if there mightn’t be more to her life than just being an unmarried “excellent woman.”
This is a brilliant but highly uncomfortable book. Pym parodies the ideas and hysteria about spinsterhood and spins it into a spoof. Mildred reminds me a lot of Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price or, to another extent, of The Blue Castle‘s Valancy Stirling. Mildred longs for more, but is somehow unable to snap out of her comfort zone. It’s a lot like life, and in portraying this confined creature, I believe Pym is challenging the kinds of gender stereotypes prevalent in her day–just like one Jane Austen. This is not my favorite Pym, because it doesn’t have the same delicious funniness, but it might be one of her most important.