excellent women, by barbara pym

If Pym is telling stories from the point of view of God then in this novel, which is told in the first person, God is a spinster who refers to herself half-ironically as one of the excellent women. Dunno about you but I’m good with that.

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.

The character cards from Some Tame Gazelle are taken up and shuffled another way. This time it is the clergyman who lives with his anxious, ineffectual sister. The bluestocking is married to the dashing hero just back from Italy, and this bluestocking has not transformed herself into an exemplary wife. Where Agatha Hoccleve sublimated her ambition to push Henry into his archdeaconate, Helena Napier is a career anthropologist and to hell with domesticity. This makes her husband entertainingly cross. (Archdeacon Hoccleve himself turns up halfway through this book to give an annoying sermon and it is hilarious, because Barbara Pym loves us and wants us to be happy.)

Despite these variations, the engine of both plots is the same. Women exercise their agency in the only way available to them: by indignantly refusing horrible offers of marriage. It’s Lizzie rejecting Mr Collins over and over again, and it is glorious. Given the Internet, Pym would have dispensed dating advice as sublime as that of Mallory Ortberg. (“Remember that you always have the option of taking to the sea.”)

The unmarriage plot is only one of the ways in which Excellent Women precisely geolocates Pym in the terrain of English literature. There is also the character of Rocky Napier, who wanders in from spending the War years with Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice de Sauveterre and Charles-Edouard de Valhubert. There is Mrs Bone, whose dread of the Dominion of the Birds is clearly listed in the DSM beside Aunt Ada Doom’s Something Nasty in the Woodshed. Maybe most disturbingly there is the anthropologist Everard Bone, whose unselfconsciously monstrous selfishness anticipates both Nelson Denoon in Mating and Richard Churchill in Half of a Yellow Sun.

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