Pym takes off the top of an ironic Russian Doll to show the inner irony, and then the innermost irony…
ChipLitFest is celebrating the excellent Barbara Pym this year, with a look at her excellent book, Excellent Women. Queen of irony, Pym skilfully undercuts many aspects of her contemporary society in this book, giving the reader a comedically critical look at its superficiality.
Excellent Women charts the life of Mildred. She is single, involved in the Church and makes cups of tea during moments of moderate crisis; which seem to be frequent. New excitement enters her life with a pair of neighbours moving in: Helena and Rocky, a female anthropologist and dashing officer. They seem to be having marital problems and Everard Bone, a fellow anthropologist, isn’t really helping matters. On the side, Mildred’s dear religious friends, Julian and his sister, Winifred, are finding their new tenant tumultuous. As Mildred struggles to incorporate the needs of everyone else, she barely stops to think that perhaps she has some of her own.
This book really comes across as a vignette of the social life of a religious spinster; religion seems to be almost the only way for Mildred to contribute to society, and she is shown to see herself as a receptor of woes but not a giver of them. Her life seems depressingly monotonous and unprivileged, and when literally each character turns to her for help and comfort, there is absolutely no reciprocation for her.
This may sound unfair to Mildred, and it is…except that she sees it as fitting, by right of her social position. Here, Pym is undoubtedly casting an ironic look at the double standards of her society: spinsters are sub-human but useful, indispensable when needed but obviously without emotions of their own because they are without a husband. This brings us to the misogyny displayed in the book.
There is so much of it. This is not surprising, as it is set roughly in the late 1940s to early 1950s, but against societal norm, Pym herself does not seem to be suggesting that women should marry to make themselves full members of society. Instead, she shows it as a failing of her community.
It doesn’t just stop at misogyny either; religion, judgement and spinsterhood are all ruthlessly satirised and parodied in the novel, with falsity dripping from every line of dialogue, and even from Mildred’s inner thoughts. All the characters are neither likeable nor unlikeable. Instead, they seem constructed to show the worst of humanity: pretentiousness, callousness, vanity…Yet none of them can be blamed for their flaws, as they are shown to simply be living their lives, albeit imperfectly.
The hypocrisy of the novel is its biggest strength. The characters are well-rounded yet also stereotypical. Each character obeys its expected behaviour in society. Its moments of daring are so mediocre that it’s almost tragic: Mildred suggests at one point that her friend should buy a green dress, yet her friend replied that anything other than brown would be inappropriate. I felt so constricted on all the characters’ behalf that often I wanted to scream at the page. I couldn’t help but think that their lives seem so ridiculously contrived to the point that it didn’t matter what they did because the plot would roll on without them.
But it is precisely this ridiculous falsity and hypocritical state of nothing mattering, whilst, at the same time, everything mattering, that makes this novel so compelling. It creates a state of irony so heightened that the reader cannot help but to see irony layered on top of one another, like satirical strata, on every page. It points out flaws in society so well that it makes me think about our own unnecessary restrictions today…The irony also creates a very dry humour that, while not laugh out loud, makes a sophisticated, insidious comedy that is gripping in its tone. All I can say is that it is easy to devour half the book before even knowing it.
It is, ironically, an excellent novel.