Monday, December 15, 2008

Excellent Women

I can't remember where I first heard Barbara Pym's name, but I wish I could so I could thank them! Picked up a copy of her Excellent Women and now want to read everything she's ever written and also press a few of my like-minded friends to do the same. How did I never read her before now????

Excellent Women is set in post-war England, and the main character is an unmarried woman who has a full-life and lots of friends. Because she's unmarried, people make a lot of assumptions about her, and are always trying (to use the modern parlance) to hook her up with someone. Others can't imagine that she could be satisfied with her life. "'What do women do if they don't marry,' she mused, as if she had no idea what it could be, having been married once herself and about to be married again."

I like to consider myself quite sympathetic to the single person - as a person who doesn't intend to have children, I gots to stand by the person who makes another non-traditional choice and doesn't intend (or isn't planning) to get married. We're like cousins, see? Poor cousins that the rest of the family thinks is really sad.

Pym is a very funny writer - so witty, clever, and subtle! I often laughed out loud. Read how one character explains her hatred of birds:
"... I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?" She turned and peered at me intently.

I said that I had no idea.

"Unpleasantness," she said, almost triumphantly so that I was reminded of William Caldicote. Then lowering her voice she explained, "From a bird, you see. It had
done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing-room."

I don't think I'll ruin it for you if I mention that the term "excellent women" is used frequently. Generally an excellent woman is a selfless women who toils for others - in exchange they call her excellent. In one amazing passage, Pym spells out her definition:
   'Ester Clovis is certainly a very capable person," he said doubtfully. "An excellent woman altogether."
   "You could consider marrying an excellent woman?" I asked in amazement. "But they are not for marrying."
   "You're surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?" he said, smiling.
   That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.
   "They are for being unmarried," I said, "And by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state."
   "Poor things, aren't they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?"
   "Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them."

I love how her main character insists that the "excellent woman" is in a "positive state" and is also not a sexless person.

I've read several reports that Pym is like the natural extension of Austin - at least in terms of the continuation of the British social critic - I thought Excellent Woman was an amazing non-traditional story.


KHM said...

Damn! Where IS that "Add to my Book Pile" button I requested?

StuckInABook said...

(A thesis on yellow - how exciting!)

I read Excellent Women four years ago, and enjoyed it, but have read nothing by Pym since...

Becky K said...

I hope that you find this. I just finished this yesterday, and had to tell you how much I enjoyed it.

That's two books I've gotten from you that I've liked! Thanks for all the good suggestions.

Special K said...

Hi, Becky K! I'm so pleased you read this book! I'm glad you enjoyed it!