I was prepared to adore Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. It came highly recommended for Jane Austen fans. So, and I’m sorry to say that this is going to sound irrational, I was really quite mad at the book when I didn’t much care for it. It made me laugh a few times but for the most part I kept reading it hoping something would eventually happen and wondering if I would even care when it did.
Excellent Women is told from the point of view of Mildred Lathbury, a spinster (read a 30-something single woman – horrors!) living in post-World War II London who is very involved with her local parish. Her life is quiet and uncomplicated until a young couple moves into the apartment below hers and the vicar gets himself engaged to a new widow living in the apartment above the vicarage. Cue misunderstandings and what I think was supposed to be a sort of dignified madcap comedy of manners. Which you think should have been awesome but was…well…dull.
Now, I mentioned I was mad at this book so I’ve thought a lot about why since I finished it last week. On paper, the plot is gold really – it should have worked and I should have loved every word of it. I’ve decided a few key issues worked against it in the end. One, the characters are just unlikable – even the likable ones. This could be the result of the first person narrative in that you don’t get to know some of the key characters all that well because Mildred just doesn’t know them well enough to let the reader get any insight into them. However, I think they were just not well written – they all fall flat on the page for me. Two, the ending. Full stop. I may have tossed the book across the room after I finished it (or I would have if it hadn’t been a library book). I don’t care how typical this sort of ending was for the time period, there is a reason Lizzy doesn’t end up with Mr. Collins. And while Mildred is no Lizzy, she didn’t deserve who she ended up with in my opinion.
I also think this book may have hit a little too close to home with the character of Mildred and so her ending was quite disheartening. The book spends a lot of time harping on Mildred’s spinsterhood when my impression of Mildred is that she is happy as a single woman and the book’s sole goal seemed to be to make her ashamed of that fact. Every once in a while, you catch Mildred out though – she doesn’t want to move into the new apartment above the vicarage, she’s happy where she is, on her own. Later, she is against the vicar’s sister moving in with her. She’s someone who has come to enjoy her solitude on many levels. She is, in essence, someone who has made a fulfilling life for herself without a man involved.
When the vicar becomes engaged, everyone in the parish is worried about how Mildred will take the news. What I loved was Mildred herself was confused – was she supposed to be upset about it in some way? Apparently, as a single woman of a certain age, the parish had always assumed that Mildred would get married to the vicar eventually. Mildred didn’t get that memo and relunctantly takes on the rejected woman role because it’s expected of her. It’s at that moment I realized that Mildred is delightful but her silly author was determined to get her attached to someone by the end of the book because that was apparently how the book HAD to end. And man, was I mad when I read the ending Pym gave to Mildred. OK, I get it, you were bound and determined to marry the poor spinster off but you couldn’t have written a better man for her? Come on, Anne Elliot got Captain Wentworth in the end people! And Mildred was definitely more Anne than Charlotte Lucas yet she got the equivalent of Mr. Collins handed to her. I have decided Midred rebelled at the last minute and returned to her life of church teas and working with impoverished gentlewomen rather than marry the drip Pym saddled her with in the end.
On an odd note, I think I would have liked, and accepted better, this story if I had watched it rather than read it. As a play or as a film with a decent screenplay and the right cast to add some life to these characters, I think this would be a lot more fun – sort of a 1940s era romantic comedy. Someone should get to work on that ASAP.