There are some books, and even movies, that delve into one day in the life of their characters, and project a kaleidoscope of emotions, explore layers upon layers of their personalities and lives, and craftfully invoke a depth that can be attributed much to the author’s imagination and perception.
Excellent Women is quite the opposite. With scene upon scene, and dialogue upon dialogue, even event upon event, nothing really changes- no new information about characters comes forth, nor their evolution. Even though I had picked this book up with the expectation to enjoy a mild Victorian- influenced setting, its tediousness begins to wear one out quickly.
A key requirement of any fiction seems to be that the reader needs to care about the protagonists. And it is incumbent upon the author to give the reader reasons why. One finds that difficult with this book- the protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, is a simple spinster occupied chiefly with goings-on at the church parish. There is nothing relatable about her- no particularly high or low points. The most remarkable thing about her, and which she worries about being judged over, is that she is making tea any time any dramatic situation occurs in the lives of other characters.
There are some noticeable undercurrents running through the narrative- how the more sensible ‘excellent women’ tended to get ‘left out’ by the men, taken for granted and often ended up playing several roles for them but not that of the wife.
There is the amusing intersection of the world of the ‘unmarried folk’- clergymen, excellent women- and the ‘married folk’.. peering into the imperfect lives of both. Much like the memorable moment when Mildred’s friend William is found peering longingly into the building next door from his office- identical to the one he is in, except it seems to be inhabited by frolicking singles of both sexes. He has named this building, “The Ministry of Desire.” Perhaps they call us the same, he wonders.
More than this novel, I find interesting Barbara Pym’s own story. It seems that after an initial good run of publishing novels while working in a government office (from where she retired in her old age), her publisher refused to publish her work further- on the pretext that it was no longer in sync with the times. She stopped publishing for several decades thereafter, starting again only in her old age when she was nominated ‘Most under-rated author of the century’ by acclaimed names in the industry. She was 64 by then.
There are those who have expressed wonderment as to why she was not treated to the same acclaim as Jane Austen. Perhaps there is an easy answer to their confusion- try reading her book.
It is not a story that offers new insight every time you read it. Nor is it applicable to every generation. Let’s take that pressure off from her to claim a classic. She may well have entertained some excellent women in her time.