Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Excellent Women AKA Busy Bodies and Spinsters

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is blurbed as being "Written with the wit and style of a twentieth-century Jane Austen." It is not only this book but her other novels as well that are compared to Austen. I love Jane Austen and from experience I know that when modern authors are compared with "classic" authors the modern story usually doesn't hold up. I have lost count of how many books I've seen advertised as "Dickensian." There is also, of course, "in the manner of," "in the style of," and "in the tradition of." If I see such a tag line on a book I generally steer clear. That's why it took me so long to get around to reading Barbara Pym. But when the praise accumulated from different sources over the course of several months, then I decided I had to pay attention. Pym began publishing in the 1950s, took a break for most of the 60s and 70s, then published a few more books before she died in 1980. She is a Brit whom Philip Larkin declared "the most underrated writer of the century." So with all of the praise, the question becomes, is it true? My answer is yes and no. Excellent Women is supposedly the most famous of Pym's novels. Except for the dreadful typeface, I enjoyed it very much. I can understand somewhat how she can be compared with Austen. Austen after all wrote about women and domestic and social goings on. Pym does too. That's the only connection I could find and if that's all it takes to be compared to Jane Austen then the people doing the comparing haven't read Emma or Persuasion or even Pride and Prejudice. Mildred Lathbury, the main character in Excellent Women, is no Elizabeth Bennet. But let's move away from the whole Austen comparison and take the book for what it is, an enjoyable comedy of manners. An excellent woman is an unmarried woman over the age of 30 who gets involved in other people's business whether by design or accident. Mildred Lathbury is one such woman. She is a devout church goer and do gooder who seems to always find herself thrust into others' affairs through no real effort on her part. She is the kind of dependable person who is always around and never says no. She is the kind of person to whom everyone goes to for sympathy and help solving their problems. And, of course, she never gets the man. Or does she? The book didn't make me think much beyond the story except for a few places where I thought, "gosh, I'm glad for the feminist movement." Pym may not have turned out to be like Jane Austen, but I liked Excellent Women enough that I'll give some of her other books a try. And if you are looking for a fun vacation read or something for a lazy day in the hammock, consider giving Barbara Pym a read.