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Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Prompted by praise on a Backlisted podcast, I revisited Barbara Pym and read two of her novels in succession. She is an excellent observer of small social groups, and her main characters are curious about other characters in their circles. This makes for lively rather than dramatic scenes in her novels. It is probably for this kind of social observation she has been compared with Jane Austen. If you haven’t experienced her writing yet I recommend you start with Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn.

Excellent Women

Written immediately after the Second World War and published in 1952, Excellent Women was Pym’s second novel. The drabness, the greyness of that time, especially of food, clothing and décor are well captured. But people went on behaving in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. This is observed by the narrator Mildred Lathbury. Although she appears to be a repressed spinster, we soon realise that she is more than she seems for she had been in censorship during the war

Mildred Lathbury is 31, single, and lives on her own after the death of her parents (father a clergyman), and her school friend Dora’s decision to leave their shared rooms to pursue a career in teaching. Mildred’s days are spent working in a charity for impoverished gentlewomen in the morning and attending to church matters, jumble sales, flower arranging, and such matters in the afternoon. She is one of those excellent dependable women, whose lives are considered to be at everyone’s disposal because they are single. 

Into this settled life come Rocky and Helena, moving into the flat below her. Helena is an anthropologist and Rocky has recently come out of the navy where his job seemed to be to manage an admiral’s social life by being nice to Wrens in Italy. Rocky is attractive and charming but the couple are not happy. Also unsettling is the news that, Allegra Grey has moved into the spare rooms in the rectory and has quickly becomes engaged to the priest, Father Malory. 

All these people make demands upon Mildred, and they all make assumptions about her. She navigates through, keeping as far as possible to the morally right path as well as trying to correct false assumptions. It is assumed that Mildred has always wanted to marry Julian Malory. They all assume that they can make demands upon her. Mildred is clearly an excellent woman, so she will undertake these tasks efficiently: writing letters, dealing with tradesmen, comforting the bereaved and so forth.

Even as Mildred is being put upon it is clear that she has trouble saying no, and towards the end one wishes she would. But her observations about the behaviour of others are precise and frequently amusing and depend on them treating her as an ‘excellent’ woman. 

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (1)

‘This may sound a cynical thing to say, but don’t you think men sometimes leave difficulties to be solved by other people or to solve themselves?’ (231) 

I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing a hat in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction. (123)

There are many good comic scenes and characterfs, perhaps the best is the awful Mrs Bone with her hatred of birds, which she devours with the enthusiasm of vengeance achieved, and her silent companion.

A Glass of Blessings

This was Barbara Pym’s fifth novel, published in 1958. For some it is their favourite, but I found it much less interesting than Excellent Women. This probably has a lot to do with the main characters. Wilmet is very different from Mildred. She is about 30, was a Wren in the Italy and married a major, now a Civil Servant. She does not work, or occupy herself with household matters (they live with their mother in law) and nor does she have any interests beyond herself and nosiness about others. She does share with Mildred an interest in the Church, Catholic but not Roman.

With no paid work, hobbies, occupations or housework Wilmet is attentive to what goes on in the clergy house, with the new priest who is in danger of going over to Rome, and with their housekeeping arrangements. She also becomes preoccupied with her best friend’s brother, Piers, and she fancies that he is in love with her. Also the same friend’s husband pays her improper attention. These minor flirtations are about self-regard, and (a bit like Emma) Wilmet is rather surprised to find that Piers is gay and the handsome new priest will marry the very dowdy Mary and her mother-in-law will remarry and want the house they currently share for herself and the professor. 

The title indicates that Barbara Pym wants the reader to see that whatever one’s circumstances life is full of interest and ‘blessings’. Wilmet thinks that, ‘perhaps it always had been without my realising it.’ (p277)  The title comes from a line in a  George Herbert poem, The Pulley. The blessings of the poem are strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and, left in the bottom of the glass, rest.

Barbara Pym

She lived from 1913-1980 and was successful with her early fiction, such as these two novels. But her publisher dropped her in 1963 because she wasn’t modern enough and her reputation languished. It was revived when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS

She knew much of what she wrote about, for example she had been a Wren in Italy in the war. She never married or had children, so perhaps she knew what it was to be seen as an excellent woman. She observed closely small lives, noted important and telling details, and could communicate the gap between what was said and what was meant with sympathy. 

Today she is considered one of the great English novelists of the post-war period. A podcast by Backlisted team was released soon after I completed this post about this book and Barbara Pym. It is very enjoyable and the knowledge that it was on its way was the stimulus to my rereading of Excellent Women. . 

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, first published in 1952 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classics in 2008. 288pp

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym first published in 1958 and reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 2009. 277pp

Related posts

Three reviews of Excellent Women can be found on these blogs.

JacquiWine’s Journal

Tredynas Days

Vulpes Libris

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym from the older women in fiction series on Bookword.

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Five Novels set in Hotels

Why set novels in hotels? Hotels provide the writer with a setting which is contained, but allows the introduction of new characters as people an=re and leave. And there is a definite social structure: both the guests and the staff have their own hierarchies. In this post I explore how the writer has used the hotel location in five novels.

Hotels

Here are some of the features of hotels that can be used by the novelist. Many of these features can been seen in the 5 novels I have chosen.

  • Hotels are enclosed and can be isolated worlds. They have their own boundaries, rules and restrictions within a bigger world.
  • People come and go in hotels. The guests and staff can represent the whole world.
  • Hotels are often places of performance for the guests as well as the staff. They are presenting a public face in an enclosed world. This is especially fruitful for mysteries.
  • The confluence of people is unplanned, people are thrown together, and the combinations have possibilities for surprise and revelations.
  • The guests have leisure, and may do new or silly things.
  • The contrast between staff and guests can show up class differences and character flaws. Sometimes there are hierarchies with the guests, for example who has which room, as in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel.
  • The location is not quite domestic, not quite private and often guests are isolated, consequently there is potential for the characters to be under considerable tension.
  • Different things happen to different people, but in close proximity. There are multiple points of view, and multiple stories.

Some of these aspects of the hotel location explain the success of the Crossroads soap and other tv series– some long-running characters, others come and go in an episode – and for films.

Five Novels with hotel settings

  1. Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

baum cover_compatible.indd

Vicki Baum was Austrian, but the Grand Hotel is in Berlin in the late 1920s. In her novel she makes full use of the transitory coincident of guests.

Nobody bothers about anyone else in a big hotel. Everyone is alone with himself in this great pub that Doctor Otternschlag not inaptly compared with life in general. Everyone lives behind double doors and has no confidant but his reflection in the looking-glass or his shadow on the wall. People brush past one another in the passages, say good morning or good evening in the Lounge, sometimes even enter into a brief conversation painfully raked together out of the barren topics of the day. A glance that travels up does not meet the eyes. It stops at your clothes. Perhaps it happens that a dance in the Yellow Pavilion brings two bodies into contact. Perhaps someone steals out of his room into another’s. That is all. Behind is an abyss of loneliness. Each in his own room is alone with his own Ego and is little concerned with another’s. (241)

The brief intersection of lives is richly mined in this novel. The humble, terminally ill book-keeper from the provinces Otto Kringelein wishes to live for a short while. Dr Otternschlag has nothing, nowhere to go, only half a face (a souvenir from Flanders), and no friends. Baron Gaigern is dashingly attractive and a conman and thief. He provides some experiences for Kringelein, fast car, aeroplane, boxing match, casino. The fading ballerina Grusinskaya, and Kringelein’s boss, Preysing. The rich and dishonest get their comeuppance. Gaigern plans to get money out of Kringelein, but he is killed by Preysing, who is involved in a business swindle and employing Flammchen as his mistress and secretary. Both Kringelein and Flammchen know poverty and win through in the end.

Their stories are told with wit, humour, tenderness and an energy that is very attractive. It is easy to see why see why it was made into an MGM movie

I borrowed Grand Hotel from Devon libraries, which as if announcing the end of civilization, has stamped inside the cover LAST COPY IN COUNTY.

281 Last copy

Grand Hotel byVicki Baum. Published in English in 1930 by Geoffrey Bles, translated from the German by Basil Creighton. 315 pp

  1. The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

281 Hotel Bowen

This was Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel and is set in an out-of-season hotel on the Italian Riviera in the 1920s. Everyone there makes compromises and mistakes about love. Sydney Warren, a young woman who is too clever for happiness; her cousin, who has come abroad to try out several illnesses recommended by her doctors; the cold and selfish but elegant Mrs Kerr, who cannot remember ever having been loved by anyone; Mrs Lee-Mittison who spends her life trying to pre-empt any annoyance for her husband; Colonel Duperrier’s wife who is miserable because he neglects her; Mr Milton who indulges himself in a bathroom, reserved for one of the more wealthy guests; Mr Lee-Mittison’s picnic to discover anemone roots, even though the Lee-Mittisons themselves have no roots

Elizabeth Bowen cleverly uses the house and the countryside almost as characters in the story. And the crowd scenes (the goodbyes, the upset load of timber) are beautifully captured.

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1927, available in both Vintage and Penguin Classics.

Here is a link to my review The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The Claremont Hotel specialises in older residents. Elizabeth Taylor uses the setting to contrast three kinds of relationships: the forced and artificial relationships of guests and staff; the unsatisfactory nature of some family relationships; and friendship based on mutual enjoyments, activities and favours.

It also allows her to explore the loneliness of Mrs Palfrey in old age. A classic novel published in 1971.

Read more here: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

281 hotel du Lac

Edith Hope comes to the Hotel du Lac on Lake Geneva to escape her life in London which has gone badly wrong. But she finds herself exposed to new people and forced to assess her life and whether she wants to settle for marriage, with an unreliable man, or make her own way in the world. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1984. You can stay at the Hotel du Lac, a friend reports.

  1. The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

281 Gr Summer

A family of 5 children and their mother go to a hotel in the Champagne region of France, on the Marne. The mother falls ill and is in hospital for the time of the action. Joss, the oldest daughter, is also sick for the first few days. The remaining four children have an idyllic time, especially when taken under the wing of Eliot, the charming Englishman. When Joss recovers all changes for she is very beautiful, and men are entranced by her. The idyll unravels and Eliot is exposed as a womaniser and a thief, despite some kindnesses to the children.

It is essentially a coming of age story, but also a bit of a thriller. Made into movie in 1961, with Susannah York and Kenneth Moore.

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden 1958, published by Pan books in 1958. 187 pp

Motels

Some motel novels were suggested to me for this post, but they are using the setting in some different ways: transience and travel are the key aspects of the motel novel. It also very American. My five hotel novels are all European.

Related Posts

Grand Hotel a review on Jacquiwine’s blog

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Some other novels set in hotels

281 Best ExoticThese Foolish Things (aka The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) by Deborah Moggach (2004)

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie (1965)

Hotel World by Ali Smith (2001)

A Room with a view by EM Forster (1908)

Related posts

Another group of themed novels: Island Novels July 2016

Walking in Four Novels August 2016

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How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

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