The characters in Barbara Pym’s novels tend to be sensibly-dressed women with strong ties to the church and depths of wit and whimsy. Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Excellent Women, is no exception. She is a 30ish spinster who works part-time for a Decayed Gentlewomen’s Society, and has plenty of leisure to observe her neighbors’ eccentricities. Occasionally she causes a small tremor in society by questioning the customs of the excellent women whose social lives revolve around the church, and of whom she is one.
She asks at a church bazaar meeting, “Do we really need a cup of tea?”
Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot…Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Stratham, 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 realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”
Small landslides in the mind are often caused by small things like cups of tea, and catalyzed by the advent of new neighbors or friends, who open up new perspectives. Excellent Women begins remarkably like An Unsuitable Attachment (which I wrote about here), with an inquisitive woman’s witnessing her new neighbor’s moving into the flat below. Later that day, while Mildred is (appropriately) scraping tea leaves into the trash, her new neighbor, Helena, an anthropologist, shows up at the dustbins with her garbage–and Mildred thinks this is an embarrassing way to meet. Then Helena, unembarrassed, who has been doing kinship studies in Africa, casually invites Mildred in and shows her furniture, Chippendale chairs, etc., which really belong to her husband (and it’s very much like Ianthe’s furniture in Unsuitable).
The two characters have little in common. Helena is pretty and unconventional, while Mildred is sensible and mannerly. But when Rocky Napier, Helena’s husband, a charming former naval Flag officer who entertained “dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms” in Italy, returns to England and does househusbandly things while Helena works, he and Mildred become fast friends.
Mildred’s close view of the rocky Napier marriage makes marriage seem more accessible. She knows that she is like one of Rocky’s Wren officers, but he treats her like an attractive woman, and naturally she has a crush on him. Rather stoically, with deadpan humor, she has contented herself with a life of volunteering for the church and friendship with the Vicar and his groupies. But soon she is more deeply involved with men than she has been before: she also meets Everard Bone, an anthropologist who inadvertently almost breaks up the Napiers’ marriage, and Mildred gradually begins to like him–though not like Rocky.
I would be happy to read Excellent Women forever and am disappointed that it ends after 256 pages. Well, not really disappointed, because this is the perfect length for a book.
Not all Pym’s books are the equals of this, but I of course am now also reading Jane and Prudence to prepare for The Barbara Pym of North America Society Conference in March (which I also wrote about yesterday, and which sadly I am not going to attend).
I’ve created an imaginary Barbara Pym Road Trip for myself. If I were going to Boston for the conference, I would have to drive (which I don’t do) and do many Barbara Pym things along the way. It might take me some days to get there.
1. Stop in Chicago and do a little gentle indexing at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Pym’s novels are crowded with indexers, librarians, and anthropologists who dabble in archaeology. According to the website, the Institute is an “interdisciplinary research center whose goal is to integrate archaeological, textual, and art historical data to understand the development and functioning of the ancient civilizations of the Near East from the earliest Holocene through the Medieval period.”
Very Pymish stuff! And maybe I can attend a lecture there.
2. Stop in South Bend, Indiana, and attend a handbell concert at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame University. Very Romish, but it will have to do, and anyway I’m Catholic. The website says: “In addition to their ministry on campus, the choir is invited to play for students in South Bend special education programs and senior citizens in the community.”
Sounds Pymish to me!
3. Drink tea at the Anastasia Mansion & Tearoom in Erie, PA. The tea will “include your choice of beverage then Soup, Muffin, Scone, four different Delectable Tea Sandwiches, most are hot from the oven. And there’s more! Four incredible desserts! Each month the menu items change to reflect the changing seasons.”
Or drink it elsewhere! I’m idly adding teahouses along my Google route to Boston.
4. Drink inexpensive wine in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, or drink tea. Then visit the Corning Glass Factory, because you can’t have too much Corning glass.
5. Oh, and find a cafeteria somewhere in Massachusetts, because Pym’s characters eat in cafeterias.
There’s a lot of church, anthropology, and tea, but there are many other Pymish activities I’ve forgotten. I’m sure you can do them at the conference.