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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 Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Many years ago I read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and earlier this year I read and reviewed Who was Changed and Who was Dead. The Vet’s Daughter  is another novel I have reread. And I am enjoying rediscovering what Graham Greene called the ‘offbeat talent’ of Barbara Comyns. I was also nudged into rereading The Vet’s Daughter when I found it on a list of the scariest books by women, which I found through Twitter (I think). 

The scariness of this novel lies in the evil behaviours of many of the characters. The vet, father of the narrator, is the worst. But there is also the wannabe rapist Cuthbert, encouraged in his assault by Alice’s father’s girlfriend. There are the Gowleys, who keep house for a depressed older woman and treat her with routine cruelty. And there are the many people who would exploit Alice’s naivety and helplessness. 

It’s a strange and macabre novel, well worth the rereading.

The Vet’s Daughter 

The novel is set in Edwardian times, when the motorcar and horse carriages coexisted. The vet, his wife and daughter live in Clapham, South London. The vet is disappointed in his wife, and regards his daughter as worse than an inconvenience. The animals in his care are not well looked after either, the parrot consigned to the toilet, and every week a taxidermist arrives to remove unwanted animals. The vet’s casual neglect provides a backdrop of menace. Here is the second paragraph of the book.

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog my father would have destroyed her. (1)

The much-quoted opening paragraph introduces the reader to a random conversation that Alice has with a man on the street, who tells her his wife belongs to the Plymouth Brethren. It establishes her naivety and her gentleness. In this paragraph I notice how things are paired with no obvious connection: home/ animals’ smell; brown hall/mother; and so on. The text, ending with the brutal statement about her father, establishes the lurking danger. As it happens, the crooked teeth are explained later. Their crookedness resulted from the vet’s violence.

Alice’s mother is feeble, ill and dying. She cannot stand up to her husband and recalls to Alice her idyllic childhood in Wales. After her death Alice’s father loses no time in bringing into the house the strumpet from the Trumpet. Alice describes Rosa as having clown make-up and rolling her eyes when she speaks. Rosa puts on a refined accent which slips under any pressure. She encourages a friend called Cuthbert in his attentions to Alice, and engineers the situation in which the girl is almost raped.

Alice is rescued from the hell that is her home by her father’s locum, who arranges for her to be the companion to his severely depressed and suicidal mother who lives on an island in the Solent. With Mrs Peebles life is better for a while. Alice meets Nicholas, who leads her on and then ignores her, behaviour which distresses and puzzles her. When Mrs Peebles is found drowned Alice must return home. 

Alice has discovered that she has a special ability, and when it is revealed to her father he plans with others to exploit her powers for financial gain. Alice has her own form of resistance, but it does not end well. The final scene is horrific.

Alice’s character is naïve, artless and this makes the cruelty to her all the worse. Her narration of events emphasises her lack of worldliness. She observes odd things, gives wrong attention to some things and none others. She is lyrical in happiness and wretched in misery and has little of the first and much of the second. Here is an early paragraph in which she sums up her typical day and her passivity.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage, escaping gas and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time. (4)

She is shown kindness by several people in the novel, but the abusive neglect of her father makes him one of the most monstrous characters in fiction.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. This was her fourth novel. 

You can find my review of Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns here

Two blogs encouraged me to reread this book: Heavenali and Simon Lavery on Tredynas Days.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, first published in 1959. I used the Virago edition, with an introduction by Jane Gardam. 159pp

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Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell

I did not include Mrs Bridge when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. Thanks to Simon Lavery for bringing it to my attention and for recommending it.

The American writer Evan S Connell has succeeded in the challenge of representing a life limited and circumscribed by convention and in which very little happens, in a way which captures the interest and the sympathy of the reader.

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell a summary

Mrs Bridge lives in Kansas City and is married to a lawyer of considerable reputation and increasing wealth in the years after the First World War. He spends time working hard to provide his family with what they want, but depriving them of his presence. The family live in a big house in the Country Club district. It would be wrong to call Mrs Bridge a housewife as they employ ‘a young colored girl named Harriet to do the cooking and cleaning’ (6). She does very little.

It the early years she raises three children. The children grow up, and she understands them less and less and they grow away from her. She flirts with the idea of learning Spanish, does a little charity work, runs useless errands, socialises and gossips with her friends. One friend commits suicide. A birthday trip to Europe is interesting but cut short by German invasion of Poland. She finds herself bored and unable to find a way out of her situation.

The overwhelming impression of Mrs Bridgeis of a life that counts for very little, a person who is unable to make changes for herself and defers to her husband on all issues. Her one attempt to access psychiatric help is dismissed out of hand by Mr Bridge. An underlying theme is of change during her life. Mrs Bridge has some inkling of the social changes around her, but does not think them through: social, racial and gender inequalities, mental health issues, the war in Europe. Her life ends in the same inconsequential way as she lived it.

Mrs Bridge is no hero

This novel follows none of the rules that rooky novelists are nowadays encouraged to adopt. Make sure that the main character wants something strongly and battles for it throughout the novel. (Mrs Bridge wants nothing. She avoids battles.) And make the antagonist a rounded person also. (Mrs Bridge has no antagonist). Her struggle and its resolution should follow a strong narrative, with vivid scenes and a three or five act structure. (Mrs Bridge  has little narrative, and her story is not resolved in the conventional way). So how does it work?

In the first place, it is written as 117 short episodes. It started life as a short story. They build into a picture of Mrs Bridge who lives her life in short and often very insubstantial episodes: a book in a store window that raises her resentment (Theory of the Leisure Class); being a chaperone at a party; requiring her son to wear a hat; employing a chauffeur; reading the local socialite magazine …

Evan S Connell keeps us at a distance from his main character.

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. (3)

She remains estranged from her first name throughout the novel. She is always referred to as Mrs Bridge.

Evan S Connell writes in a spare style which brilliantly shows Mrs Bridge’s inability to take independent action. There is a great deal of restrained humour in the short episodes. The lines quoted above open the novel. Mrs Bridge wonders if her parents were hoping for another sort of daughter,

As a child she was often on the point of enquiring, but time passed and she never did. (3)

And another example, her first daughter is about to leave home:

Mrs Bridge tried to become indignant when Ruth announced she was going to New York, but after all it was useless to argue. (108)

It breaks many rules, but it is a small masterpiece. For another successful novel about an unremarkable life one might consider Stoner  by John Williams, published in 1965.

Evan S Connell

Evan S Connell was born in 1924 in Kansas City. Mrs Bridge was his debut novel. It has been suggested that the character wass based on his own mother, who lived a similar life to Mrs Bridge, in Kansas City. The novel was dedicated to his sister.

The publication of a debut novel at 45 years may seem quite late. Evan S Connell had enlisted as a pilot during the Second World War. He went on to write many more novels, poems and short stories including a companion novel, Mr Bridge, in 1959.  He was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2009. He died in 2013.

In 1990 James Ivory made the film Mr and Mrs Bridge, starring a married couple, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman.

Simon Lavery’s comments about this novel can be found on his blog Tredynas Days: Mme Bovary of Kansas City: Evan S Connell, ‘Mrs Bridge’

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, first published in1959. I used the edition from Penguin Modern Classic published in 2012. 187pp

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