Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Excellent Women, preliminary thoughts

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

There are books that one can rate, summarize and review as soon as one reaches the last word of the last line. There are others that positively demand to be reread before one does so.

This is one of those books.

To start with "the bottom line" - I enjoyed this book very much. After my first reading I gave it a preliminary rating of 4-1/2 stars. I knew it was good, I knew I enjoyed it and yet I wasn't quite ready and able to explain why.

So I gave it a little rest (48 hours) and picked it up again.

Now, after reading it a second time I have decided that it rates a full 5 stars. I still don't feel that I can adequately explain all the reasons I found it to be excellent or capture all the thoughts reading it sparked.

I need to read it at least one more time so before sitting down to type this preliminary review I ordered a copy of my own so I can return the one I have to the library.

Why did I so enjoy this book? First of all, Pym's writing style was unobtrusively pleasant. It vaguely evokes the feeling of Austen without reading like a pastiche. Pym's voice is not the voice of Austen but one does feel a similarity of taste and tone between the two.

The plot of Excellent Women is at the same time like all of Austen's books and none of them. The protagonist (the "voice" of the book), Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried woman in her early thirties who lives on a small income after the death of her parents. She is, like so many of Austen's heroines, a gentlewoman of modest means. Lathbury herself notices that though she lives in London her life is very much as it was when she lived in a more rural setting. Most of her interactions are with a rather circumscribed number of people. Gossip, cooking, cleaning, visiting with others, planning church events and shopping fills her life and the lives of many of those around her.

In many ways the world in which Lathbury lives would be familiar to Austen and yet in some crucial ways it is very different. While those around Lathbury may gossip about her "opportunities" and presume that she would accept a proposal from the appropriate man she herself shows little urgency, let alone desire, to marry. She is wryly aware of her attraction to some of the men she meets but these are mild and passing feelings. She is aware of the woeful financial circumstances of some members of her own class (in fact her job involves working with distressed gentlewomen) and is aware that some day she may find herself in a similar circumstance. These financial realities do not seem to have an impact on her interactions with men.

Unlike the unmarried daughters of deceased clergymen in Austen's day Lathbury and her contemporaries feel no shame at holding down jobs. They may, like Lathbury's friend Dora, work as teachers, but they are not reduced to being governesses tucked away in cold and badly lit attics. They can travel freely, they can have male friends and they can even, if they so choose, have careers.

What Pym highlights in this book is the state of male/female relationships at a pivotal moment in time. Men still assume that they will be looked after (a point about which Lathbury has frequent wry thoughts) but they have lost much of their authority and power and seem for the most part of have retained their privileges through societal inertia rather than through any efforts of their own. Pym (through Lathbury) observes English life as the changes in class structure and male/female dynamics begins to unfold.

For any reader who has wondered after finishing Sense and Sensibility "what would happen to Elinor and Marianne today" Excellent Women is an excellent answer.

Rating: 5 stars

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