I am a recent convert to the charming world of Pym.
By recent, I mean just 3 days ago!
Barbara Pym has been on my radar for a while though. But it wasn’t until I joined in The Classics Club Their Eyes Were Watching God sync reading two months ago that I made the first move.
My copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the designer collection put out by Virago Modern Classics. I loved it so much (book and cover) that I researched to see what other titles were still available in the range.
Excellent Women was one of them…so I snapped it up.
It has been sitting on my bedside table for two months now tempting me with it’s delicious cover by Orla Kiely. When I saw that Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle were hosting a Pym reading week in honour of her 100th birthday I saw it as a sign to finally give in to temptation.
I’m so glad I did.
Excellent Women has turned out to be a charming, drawing room period piece full of grace and at times, quite biting humour.
I’ve seen many references that compare Pym’s writing to Jane Austen.
As a long-time Austen fan I can see the similarities – the humorous observations, the details describing the lives of women in the particular period that the two women wrote of. But Austen’s ability to weave her plot lines, dialogue and characters into such tight, dare I say, perfect stories is a stand out difference.
Perhaps Mildred is the post war Charlotte Lucas with a choice of two Mr Collins’. Except Mildred, unlike Charlotte, has more options – Mildred does not have to accept Julian or Everard (if they ever make an offer that is). Mildred can work, she can be independent, she need never be a burden on siblings or nieces and nephews.
I see Pym’s gentle, everyday stories of ‘good’ women fitting more into the Anita Brookner and Alice Munro writing style.
All four authors share the ability to show us the quotidian events that affected their characters in the times that they lived.
I keep coming back to this point, because I often read reviews that complain about the lack of feminist rhetoric in Austen and Pym in particular. But that’s not the world their characters lived in. Their women were strong, intelligent (mostly) and loving (usually). Their opinions and ideas were based on the world they lived in. They accurately reflected their class, their education and their experiences.
Mildred’s gentle, loving church upbringing meant that she was never going to be one of the bra-burning generation. Some of the most poignant moments in Excellent Women are when Mildred is forced to come face to face with more modern ideas and people. She is the classic fish out of water.
Mildred was part of that large group of women who remained unmarried after WWII due to the tragic loss of so many (marriageable) men. She worked, lived independently, dreamed her romantic dreams, but ultimately developed a pragmatic, busy and self-contained life to disguise any loneliness or despair that might have crept in. She accepted her lot in life with grace and forbearance.
I lived a single, fiercely independent life for 18 years (before finding my very own Mr Knightley/Captain Wentworth). I know the joys and freedoms of single life and I also know it’s downsides. I know the private deals you make with yourself.
Mildred’s experience is authentically drawn by Pym. My heart aches for Mildred – her determination to make the best of things is heart warming and heart breaking in the same breath.
There is definitely more Pym on my horizon.
And indeed there was!