Barbara Pym Centenary: Excellent Women

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Barbara Pym Centenary: Excellent Women

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jan 28, 2013, 11:39 am

Putting this thread up a few days early because - *whispers* I have aready started it : )

jan 28, 2013, 12:23 pm

Sneaky! :)

jan 28, 2013, 12:58 pm

This was my very first Pym, and I thought it was wonderful. I don't plan to re-read but will follow the thread and discussion with interest!

jan 28, 2013, 2:21 pm

Yes it's a re-read for me too - fitting in nicely to the end of my month of re-reading

jan 28, 2013, 2:30 pm

My word. It is a re-read for me as well and I am looking forward to reading it again as I can't remember offhand too much about it.

jan 28, 2013, 3:53 pm

It's new to me, so I'm looking forward to it!

jan 29, 2013, 7:28 am

I will miss this one as I don't have the book and am travelling for most of February anyway. But I will mark the thread so that when I can read the novel I will be able to share your insights.

jan 29, 2013, 1:27 pm

It's new to me too and my copy is on its way - hooray!

jan 29, 2013, 1:41 pm

*whispers really quietly* finished : )

Loved it again. Review tomorrow or day after - too tired to think strainght tonight.

jan 30, 2013, 2:28 pm

No spoilers - but I expect most people will want to avoid it till they have read the book - but anyway review is up.

jan 30, 2013, 2:39 pm

I absolutely loved this book- I read it several years ago and it's one of the best that I've read in recent years.

jan 30, 2013, 3:58 pm

Hi Everyone, I'll be joining in too. This will be my first Barbara Pym and first group read in the Virago group.

jan 30, 2013, 4:53 pm

Welcome DorsVenabili

jan 30, 2013, 5:59 pm

Yes, welcome, Kerri!

jan 31, 2013, 12:39 am

Hello Kerri. I am happy that you are joining us. Welcome.

jan 31, 2013, 3:54 am

12: Great to see you here, Kerri! I hope you enjoy Excellent Women.

10: Lovely review, Ali. (I thought I was safe to read it as Excellent Women will be a re-read for me!)

feb 4, 2013, 9:25 pm

I'm here too and this will be my first Pym. I have a couple more on my shelf and hope to read them during the appropriate months.

feb 5, 2013, 3:20 am

Just marking the thread as I read this just before Christmas, so it's a bit soon for a re-read. Looking forward to reading your thoughts.

feb 6, 2013, 5:22 am

Just picked up my copy of this with a view to starting soon and it's brought back so many memories.

It's the hardback edition with the Orla Kiely cover which Virago published in 2008 with several other "designer" editions. I was new to the Virago forum and Barbara Pym at the time, but newly enthused and I really wanted this book! As I wasn't working at the time and my husband was on a low wage, I very rarely bought new books but justified the purchase as a reward for completing the volunteer training at the organisation where I now work as a volunteer trainer and coordinator!

I remember it being well worth the expense and am looking forward to re-reading!

feb 6, 2013, 6:45 am

Thanks for the warm welcome! I just received Excellent Women in the mail yesterday and will start it once I finish my current book.

feb 6, 2013, 8:05 am

>19 Soupdragon:: ooh that would be a lovely edition to own, Dee. I have the "designer" edition of Diary of a Provincial Lady, and it's so pretty.

feb 8, 2013, 7:13 pm

OK I finished and REVIEWED the book. In short, I loved it. I loved her writing so I will be following up with the next book Jane and Prudence which I already own. I also have The Sweet Dove Died. Most of the rest I can get from my library. So hopefully, I'll be in for the long haul.

feb 8, 2013, 8:29 pm

Hooray! Welcome to the fun, Bonnie.

feb 9, 2013, 12:38 am

Thank you Laura. I'm all for fun;-)

feb 9, 2013, 8:53 am

I have my copy but have not yet started reading.

feb 9, 2013, 11:40 am

Loved the review Ali - thank you!

feb 15, 2013, 8:37 am

My review of Excellent Women is here I will paste it into my record on here in due course ...

feb 22, 2013, 6:15 am

Have finally finished this month's book and liked it very much though it provoked more thought I think than Some Tame Gazelle - review here:

Redigeret: feb 22, 2013, 6:29 am

I'm about 100 pages into it. Enjoying the first person narration, reflecting on the lost concept of spinsterhood. What different connotations bachelor and spinster have!

feb 22, 2013, 3:42 pm

So this was a reread for me. Excellent Women was the first Pym I read. I find it slightly kinder and much funnier than Some Tame Gazelle. She certainly treads some of the same ground of her other books. I found it fascinating that much of the book is actually framed around the liturgical year because that is how Mildred frames her life.

I am also endlessly fascinated by the title and what constitutes an excellent woman. Yes, it is the group of single, capable, hard working, neither rich nor impoverished women who do work in churches and charities and suffer small slights and embarrassments. However, Pym seems to call into question whether any of them are excellent in character or otherwise. The phrase seems to be deployed mostly by men and a few self-serving women who want them to do something for them.

While I love that Pym again subverts the expected marriage plot none of her characters escape the spheres in which they have confined themselves. I suspect this is simply true to life but most of us wish for a little escape. In fact she says it,

"...after all, life ws like that for most of us - the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longing rather than the great dramatic renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction"

She also seems to hint that it may be better to be an excellent woman than tied to a loveless or complicated marriage. Even if Mildred is put upon by others she maintains some fragment of life that is her own.

It held up very well on rereading.

feb 23, 2013, 11:58 pm

I've been reflecting on Excellent Women all month. This and Glass of Blessings are my favorite of her works. (interesting that they are both first person narratives...)

Excellent Women has these moments of startling clarity that still dazzle me, even when I know they are in there. Two are in Chapter Fourteen -- the moment when Mildred and Allegra Gray go to lunch, and Mildred is startled by Mrs Gray's forwardness when she is trying to get Mildred to get someone out of her hair: "I saw Mrs Gray's face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot color."

After making a hasty getaway, just a page later, Mildred finds herself in the department store, browsing cosmetics. She longs "to be lost in a crowd of busy women shopping" but is still alienated enough to observe them, and herself. This is the thing -- she is able to see herself, but the fact that she can doesn't mean she can disassociate with the world entirely. She participates in making herself up -- "I could at least buy a new lipstick, I thought, consulting the shade card." When Mildred chooses one she thinks right for herself, with a strange exotic name, the "girl" behind the counter doesn't think it "quite your colour" and looked "at me blankly, as if no shade could really do anything for me."

"'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savoring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame." On to tea she goes, observing others in the restaurant -- "Many had the satisfaction of having done a good day's shopping and would have something to gloat over when they got home. I had only my Hawaiian Fire and something not very interesting for supper."

The third is in the work of genius that is Mrs Bone. While much in the book is proper and civilized, even the anthropologists preoccupied with primitives, here an anthropologist's mother exhibits extremely primal urges.

"'Read this.' She handed me a cutting headed OWL BITES WOMAN, from which I read that an owl had flown in through a cottage window and bitten a woman on the chin. 'And this,' she went on, handing me another cutting which told how a swan had knocked a girl off her bicycle. 'What do you think of that?'

'Oh, I suppose they were just accidents,' I said.

'Accidents! Even Miss Jessop agrees that they are rather more than accidents, don't you, Miss Jessop?'"

When they sit down to dinner, "'I eat as many birds as possible,' said Mrs Bone when we were sitting down to roast chicken. 'I have them sent from Harrods or Fortnum's, and sometimes I go and look at them in the cold meats department. They do them up very prettily with aspic jelly and decorations. At least we can eat our enemies.'"

Reflecting on these episodes, the theme of anthropological studies stands out to me. Underlying the plot and characters of the book are these primal impulses, or what a friend of mine used to call biological imperatives, many of which seem messy in the modern landscape of shops, restaurants, and churches. These impulses are still the most important -- finding a mate, earning a living, ornamenting oneself to fit in or stand out -- but somehow the experience of them is different because they can be observed dispassionately, almost in the way an anthropologist observes others living in the flow of culture. But the modern predicament is that we cannot simply live in the flow of culture -- we observe ourselves, and so can never fully buy in to the Hawaiian Fire lava flow.

This is a book I read again and again, and either it or I have gotten smarter -- I think it's it, and that insight has come from rereading!

feb 24, 2013, 3:20 am

The evening with Mrs. Bone is one of my favourite episodes in the book. And I still want to know what Miss Jessop did that required an apology.

feb 25, 2013, 11:52 am

Jen, I love your insight about the anthropological through-line of the story. In some ways Mildred is the anthropological observer of everyone around her through her first person perspective and she turns it on herself - as she did with the Hawaiian Fire as often as she turns it on others. She is good at lifting the veneer of civilized society.

feb 25, 2013, 12:55 pm

Maren, I love that verbage: "good at lifting the veneer of civilized society." How very appropriate.

mar 11, 2013, 1:44 am

I'm a little behind schedule; just finished Excellent Women and loved it. Now that I've read the comments above, I'll need to read it again, "anthropologically."

I feel a little dumb here, but is the term "excellent women" a commonly used term as it is used in this book (for single women who work for churches, charities, etc.), or common during the era the book was written? Or is it Pym's invention?

mar 11, 2013, 3:49 am

I think 'excellent' was often used to describe individual single women who did a lot of work for their church, but I don't think 'excellent women' was really used of them as a type or class of women before Barbara Pym.

mar 11, 2013, 7:58 pm

I agree Robert. I will always and forever associate that term with Barbara Pym.

mar 15, 2013, 12:27 pm

I finished Excellent Women this week - February seemed a bit busy - and although I enjoyed it and loved the writing I didn't warm to it somehow, though I can't put my finger on why.

mar 15, 2013, 1:28 pm

#35, 36 - I came across a passage in Doctor Thorne recently where Trollope has one character refer to another as an 'excellent woman'. The character is one who has risen above her previous station in life but is not regarded by others (or indeed herself) as belonging in her newly elevated sphere, and the description 'excellent woman' has a slightly condescending or belittling feel to it in this instance which I think is similar to the usage Pym is highlighting in this book.

mar 15, 2013, 3:13 pm

#39 --Ah, thank you. Does sound like something out of Trollope. By the way, Doctor Thorne is my favorite Trollope.

Redigeret: mar 15, 2013, 7:07 pm

An n-gram for "excellent women" in British English from 1700 to 2000. It shows a peak around 1860, with a steady decline ever since, with a bump in the 1950s, which may or may not have been caused by Barbara Pym.