Note: This post contains what may be considered spoilers, not so much of the plot, but of the future, off-the-page life of its protagonist.
This might be my favourite novel by Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathbury is most certainly my favourite of Pym’s characters. She is an ‘excellent’ woman — an unmarried, Christian gentlewoman, one of the pillars of her parish — capable, dependable, thoroughly respectable.
When reading Excellent Women, I get the impression that Mildred sees herself as plain and dull although she never actually says she is (the novel is written in the first person). The impression is created with a few self-deprecating remarks, adverbs and adjectives! Even if you think ‘spinster’ is a neutral descriptor, it’s evident, from how she uses the word, that Mildred views it negatively: ‘fussy and spinsterish’; ‘spinsterish and useless’; ‘dim spinsters’; ‘spinsterish and “set” in my ways’.
Hmm, thinking about it, it may be that Mildred doesn’t see herself as ‘spinsterish’ or a spinster, with all that the word implies, but dreads the fact that she is one, or might be on her way to becoming one. Perhaps she has conflicting feelings about spinsterhood. On one hand, her religion and job obliges her to view them positively, even if it is with pity; on the other, she actually doesn’t think much of them, and fears being viewed as one by those around her.
Personally, I see Mildred resembling the actor Susan Wooldridge in her role as Daphne in the television adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown. Daphne is supposed to be awkward and plain, but although Wooldridge succeeded in portraying the character as somewhat gawky and graceless, she was unable to make her unattractive. I think of Mildred’s intelligence and wit would animate her face, and her compassionate nature would warm her gaze, her wry humour put a twinkle in her eye, no matter how discreetly she behaved. Mildred is most certainly an attractive woman even if not a beauty. And as for being ‘dim’, ‘fussy’, ‘useless’ or dull, the glamorous heartbreaker Rockingham Napier certainly doesn’t think so!
Helen Napier and her husband are Mildred’s new neighbours. Helen is an anthropologist, Rocky is ex-navy and appears to have spent the war in Italy, planning his boss, the Admiral’s social life and making love to Wrens. Mildred imagines herself in love with Rocky, but it’s obvious that she is only enjoying his attention. I think Rocky is good for Mildred’s self esteem. He makes her more aware of her feelings and gives her an idea that she is not as unattractive or boring as she imagines (fears?) she is.
Everard Bone, an anthropologist whom Helen Napier fancies, also admires Mildred, but she thinks he views her as convenient and useful. To be sure it’s not a relationship that is based on passion, or sexual attraction, but I do think Everard Bone appreciates Mildred, whatever her opinion might be! The following exchange is telling:
‘Rocky is in the country and Helena has gone home to her mother in Devonshire.’
‘Oh, that is a relief,’ he said, taking up the menu and ordering lunch with rather less fuss than William did.
‘I don’t really know that one should have expected anything else. Women who quarrel with their husbands usually do go home to their mothers, if they
‘I certainly gave her no encouragement,’ said Everard, almost in a satisfied tone.
‘Oh, I’m sure you didn’t,’ I said, contemplating my hors d’ouvres. ‘I can’t imagine you doing such a thing.’
‘Of course,’ he went on, with a note of warning in his tone, ‘I shall probably marry eventually.’
‘Yes, men usually do,’ I murmured.
‘The difficulty is to find a suitable person.’
‘Perhaps one shouldn’t try to find people deliberately like that,’ I suggested. ‘I mean, not set out to look for somebody to marry as if you were going to buy a saucepan or a casserole.’
‘You think it should just be left to chance? But then the person might be most unsuitable.’
The idea of choosing a husband or wife as one would a casserole had reminded me of Rocky’s letter and his allegation that Everard had broken one of his casseroles. I suppose a smile must have come on to my face, for he said, ‘You seem to find it amusing, the idea of marrying somebody suitable.’
‘I wasn’t really smiling at that. It was just that I couldn’t imagine you breaking a casserole.’
‘Oh, that,’ he said rather irritably. ‘Helena had put it in the oven to warm and when I took hold of it it was so hot that I dropped it.
‘Yes, I could imagine it happening in that way, with a perfectly reasonable explanation. It was a pity you didn’t use the oven cloth,’ I suggested.
‘But it had only been in the oven a few minutes. Besides, I don’t think there was an oven cloth.’
‘I always have mine hanging on a nail by the side of the cooker.’
‘Well, you’re a sensible person. It’s just the kind of thing you would have.’
Oh, dear, one was to be for ever cast down, I thought, brooding over the piece of fish on my plate. If I had been flattered by Everard’s invitation to lunch I was now put in my place as the kind of person who would have an oven cloth hanging on a nail by the side of the cooker.
‘Would you have married Helena if she had not been married already?’ I asked boldly.
‘Certainly not,’ he declared. ‘She is not at all the kind of person I should choose for my wife.’
‘What would she be like, that Not Impossible She?’ I asked.
‘Oh, a sensible sort of person,’ he said vaguely.
‘Somebody who would help you in your work?’ I suggested. ‘Somebody with a knowledge of anthropology who could correct proofs and make an index, rather like Miss Clovis, perhaps?’
‘Esther Clovis is certainly a very capable person,’ he said doubtfully. ‘An excellent woman altogether.’
‘You could consider marrying an excellent woman?’ I asked in amazement. ‘But they are not for marrying.’
‘You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?’ he said, smiling.
Poor Mildred! She really is quite dense. Or, determined not to notice that Everard has stated quite plainly that she would be the sort of person he would marry.
I have heard some readers say that Everard is only interested in Mildred because she is the sort of efficient, sensible woman that would make a good secretary. I’m not sure why this is worse than if he were interested in her because she is good and beautiful, and would make an attractive wife. Everyone is appreciated for different reasons, but it seems to me that it’s preferable for a woman to be chosen for her ornamental rather than practical value. In any case, Everard values the ability to make indexes and proofread and does not strike me as the sort of person who would be distracted by sexual attraction. Therefore, it’s no insult to Mildred that he favours her.
Everard Bone and Mildred Lathbury are my favourite Pym couple. I like the way their ‘romance’ begins and develops quite differently from those that are based on more conventional attraction. Everard isn’t the sort to woo a woman, and so he treats Mildred as a friend rather than a potential girlfriend. So, there isn’t the effort to wine and dine her in an overtly romantic sense. Still, I do think he puts more effort into it simply by the way he seeks her out. As everything is seen through Mildred’s eyes, we have no way of knowing how Everard actually feels. He annoys Mildred by hanging about in the street where she works instead of ringing her up, but it may be because he is nervous and awkward about pursuing a woman. He is certainly not a smooth operator, like Rocky. I can’t see him buying flowers and chocolates for Mildred, but neither can I imagine him cheating on her with a Wren or Italian femme fatale.
The fact that Everard asks Mildred to dinner with his mother is a sure sign of his interest. I don’t think anyone would ask someone they didn’t like to meet their mother! Of course Mrs Bone is quite eccentric, and Everard is impressed by the way Mildred interacts with her (‘You seem to have made a favourable impression,’ he said … ‘Most people are quite incapable of carrying on a conversation with my mother. I admired the way you did it.’). The invitation is not just a mark of his approval, but a test. Will his mother take kindly to Mildred? What strange things might she say and how will Mildred respond to them?
Mrs Bone, as odd as she may be, is one of Pym’s best comic characters. Her observations about birds are hilarious:
‘My husband shot them in India and Africa,’ said Mrs. Bone, ‘but however many you shoot there still seem to be more.’
‘Oh, yes, it would be a terrible thing if they became extinct,’ I said. ‘I suppose they keep the rarer animals in game reserves now.’
‘It’s not the animals so much as the birds,’ said Mrs. Bone fiercely. ‘You will hardly believe this, Miss—er—but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?’ She turned and peered at me intently.
I said that I had no idea.
‘Unpleasantness,’ she said, almost triumphantly so that I was reminded of William Caldicote. Then lowering her voice she explained, ‘From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing room.’
‘How annoying,’ I said, feeling mesmerised and unable even to laugh.
‘And that’s not the worst,’ she went on, rummaging in a small desk which stood open and seemed to be full of old newspapers. ‘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 one evening 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?’
Miss Jessop made a quavering sound which might have been ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but it was not allowed to develop into speech, for Mrs. Bone broke in by telling Everard that Miss Jessop wouldn’t want any sherry.
‘The Dominion of the Birds,’ she went on. ‘I very much fear it may come
Everard looked at me a little anxiously but I managed to keep up the conversation until Mrs. Bone declared that it was dinner time. ‘You had better be going home, now, Miss Jessop,’ she said. ‘We are going to have our dinner.’
Miss Jessop stood up and put on her gloves. Then, with a little nod which seemed to include all of us, she went quietly out of the room.
‘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.’
However, her rather mad ideas aside, she seems quite progressive in her views, and I hope these views were shared by Pym. When the question of cannibalism in Africa comes up, Mildred protests that surely the British administration would have stamped it out and Everard talks about missionaries educating the tribes, but his mother says:
‘Missionaries have done a lot of harm,’ said Mrs. Bone firmly. ‘The natives have their own religions which are very ancient, much more ancient than ours. We have no business to try to make them change.’
It occurs to me that Mrs Bone is allowed to get away with such ‘un-Christian’ statements because she is seen (and dismissed) as an old eccentric. Usually, what you see in novels from this era is lots of racist pronouncements, which certain fans will defend as ‘of their time’. Mrs Bone’s words are a reminder that not everyone in England was an imperialist.
Mildred’s thinking is more conventional, but I think this will change in time. In Jane and Prudence, the next novel Pym published (in 1953), we learn that Mildred and Everard marry. In Less Than Angels (1955) we learn that she goes with him on his research trips. I like to believe that Mildred is the sort whose mind is broadened by travel and that she will not stubbornly cling to her old views that were inherited from her clergyman father.
Excellent Women ends with Mildred still totally clueless as to how Everard feels about her. That, perhaps, is part of her charm for I can imagine he would not have the patience for coy or flirtatious behaviour.
I wonder how Everard eventually proposes marriage. Perhaps the same way he asks her to check his proofs:
‘Well, what about your book, then? How is it getting on?’
‘I have just had some of the proofs and then of course the index will have to be done. I don’t know how I’m going to find time to do it,’ said Everard, not looking at me.
‘But aren’t there people who do things like that?’ I asked.
‘You mean excellent women whom one respects and esteems?’
‘Yes, I suppose I did mean something like that.’
There was a pause. I looked into the gas-fire, which was one degree better than the glowing functional bar into which I had gazed with Julian.
‘I was wondering …’ Everard began, ‘but no—I couldn’t ask you. You’re much too busy, I’m sure.’
‘But I don’t know how to do these things,’ I protested.
‘Oh, but I could show you,’ he said eagerly; ‘you’d soon learn. He got up and fetched a bundle of proof sheets and typescript from the desk. ‘It’s quite simple, really. All you have to do is to see that the proof agrees with the typescript.’
‘Well, I dare say I could do that,’ I said, taking a sheet of proof and looking at it doubtfully.
‘Oh, splendid. How very good of you!’ I had never seen Everard so enthusiastic before. ‘And perhaps you could help me with the index too? Reading proofs for a long stretch gets a little boring. The index would make a nice change for you.’
‘Yes, it would make a nice change,’ I agreed. And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proofreading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after all.
Perhaps I should be allowed to talk to Mrs. Bone about worms, birds and Jesuits, or find out who Miss Jessop really was and why an apology had been demanded from her.
‘It should be interesting work,’ I said rather formally and began to read from the proof sheet I was holding. But as I read a feeling of despair came over me, for it was totally incomprehensible. ‘But I don’t understand it!’ I cried out. ‘How can I ever know what it really means?’
‘Oh, never mind about that,’ said Everard, smiling. ‘I dare say you will eventually. But don’t you remember the late President’s wife?’
‘Why, of course, that’s a comfort,’ I said, seeing myself once more in that room at the Learned Society where the old lady was sitting in a basket chair in the front row with her knitting.
Oh, my, I wonder if that actually is his proposal!
Next: Excellent Women, Part 2