Excellent Women - Barbara Pym, Jayne Entwistle

Well, hate is too strong a word so let's just put it this way:  I love Pym's writing but the characters have gotten under my skin, and not in a good way. For some reason, I am having too much trouble accepting the fact that I am reading a book that was published when I was barely a year old. Rationally, I know that those times were different, that people were different, that standards of behavior were different, that expectations were different and yet these people are driving me crazy. I'm yelling at the book and all I can see in these character are their worst characteristics.

 

Rocky is a user of people and Mildred let's him get away with it--and this is where I start yelling at the book. And, how can a man who does all the cooking be entirely incapable of making a cup of tea?? Is it just a social ploy or does he really think that he can just wander into her flat and all but demand she make him tea? Helena is immature but at least they figure it out in the end, maybe. If nothing else, they are the parents of my generation, they are the fathers of the social revolution. The times they are a changin'.

 

Julian and Winifred are bound together for life. Not a marriage, just a baby brother who understands that he is responsible for his sister and her well-being and is prepared to take care of her for the rest of his life. I applaud him for this. Still, he has other characteristics that drive me bonkers (and no, I am not going to elucidate). Maybe that is what I am missing, that Pym's characters are true to life, they have good traits and bad, they are (well-?) rounded. But, I just seem to be focusing on the bad and it just painting the wrong picture. Maybe I will feel better when I finish eye-balling the book and underlining all the passages that I wanted to underline while i was listening to it.

 

Mildred is a lovely, friendly, helpful caring woman but her constant stereotyping of people has me grinding my teeth. "Men love messing about with paint and distemper." "Wives ought to be waiting for their husbands to come back from wars." Thing seem to be black and white to her. And, then she will come out with these pithy little gems of insight, "Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing." Mildred in her way is a very giving person. She does not know how to say, "no." But she seems to do these things because it is expected of her because of "spinster" status. Everybody is classified in her mind; everyone has their status and what is due to them whether they earn it or not.

 

I find it interesting that Mildred talks very little of what it was like during the war. it happened and she will relate facts and events from that time period but she doesn't dwell on them. They are part of the landscape but it is not what the book is about. She describes her neighborhood and her living conditions in a very matter of fact way but her only lament is that she has to share a bathroom with strangers. She talks very little about her past and how it affected her. The book is about Mildred in the here and now, how she relates to  people and how she sees people relating to her. It is also about Mildred  on the brink of her future, her future in a world that she cannot forsee or even imagine might change.

 

Finally, I must  admit to feeling all together out of depth here. There is so much about immediately post-war UK that I don't know, those little unspoken details that Pym readers of the 1950s knew and understood. Sister Blatt for instance. Where I come from 'Sister' is how one would address a Catholic nun. But in this case, she can't be a nun because with nuns, Sister is always followed by the name of a saint or the like and I've never heard of a St. Blatt and if Pym is fashioning this woman as a religieux, why such an obtuse name. So Sister Blatt is not a nun but she has an honorific that confers her some status in the community, a status that Pym does not need to explain to the readers. Well, by now my UK book buddies are yelling at the screening, "She's a nurse. She's a nurse"  I did finally remember, from all those Betty Neels romances I read in my younger days, that in the UK 'Sister' is also an honorific used with nurse and with the help of the book and the TV series The Midwives, I have some idea of how she functioned in the community. And that is just one example of pitiful ignorance.

 

And with that, she who proclaims to be "terse and to the point" will end, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.