I am probably just deluding myself that one day I won’t give in entirely to Pym love and join the Barbara Pym Society like every other obsessed Pym fan, especially if I continue to return to my favorite Pym novel Excellent Women. This small and very, very funny book, like her other works, focusses on the genteel but rather drab life of an English spinster, in this case one Mildred Lathbury, whose world seems to consist of jumble sales, long chats with the vicar, and the inevitably endless cups of tea. She is surrounded by friends, of a sort, and associates, all of whom seem to lead more exciting lives than her own and she observes them all closely, with a dark wit and a sharp sense of humor that is second to none. Much like the work of Jane Austen these books are certainly not plot heavy. In fact virtually nothing happens and yet somehow it is Pym’s greatest accomplishment to make this nothing seem like absolutely everything to her narrator, and reader. Mildred’s sharp eye is deeply ironic, and while life hasn’t handed her much she is never sad and seems only reasonably discontent. It is impossible to read this book and not root for her, and the countless other women she represents who stand teetering on the brink of spinsterhood with a teapot in one hand and a china cup in the other. Mildred Lathbury, we salute you!
Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was a moderately successful writer whose work fell out of favor in the early 1960’s for being out of step with the times. For sixteen years she continued to write in obscurity until one day in the 21st of January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her “the most underrated novelist of the century.” From that point on she rose to almost instant fame and recognition. She died at the early age of 66 of breast cancer.
“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”
― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women