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!