Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952)
As I read Excellent Women, the best-known work by the once-neglected, now widely praised English novelist Barbara Pym, I was reminded of another acclaimed comic novel that I read not long ago: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. On the surface, Amis’s hard-drinking, buffoonish misogynist Jim Dixon may seem to have little in common with Pym’s un-effusive, church-going “excellent woman,” Mildred Lathbury. But the two books shadow and reflect each other in a fascinating way.
Jim is an exercise in how uncongenial one can make a main character, while still attempting to elicit our sympathy for him. An English professor who apparently despises English literature, he goes on epic benders when he’s supposed to be giving a lecture, leaves cigarette burns in the sheets when he’s a houseguest, and is unable to disentangle himself from a woman he doesn’t love or respect — she’s marginally better than no girlfriend at all, it seems, in his “woman-as-object” universe. Some readers find him so awful, he’s adorable; I just found him awful.
Mildred, meanwhile, is about as self-effacing as a character presented in the first person can be. Set in postwar London, the book opens with new neighbors moving in upstairs, and as Mildred becomes a witness to and sometimes participant in their disordered lives, so much more glamorous and seedy than her own, we find us asking ourselves what she really thinks about all this. Other characters in the novel are always eager to tell her what she should be feeling, seeming to find the sensibilities of an unmarried woman over a certain age to be public property; she quietly expresses annoyance at this, while baffling us with sideways expressions and half-uncoverings of her true self.
In both books, though, the opposite sex is a total mystery. The masculine Jim approaches this riddle with bluff and bravado, the feminine Mildred with puzzlement and a sort of understated obstinacy. And both stories left me with a sense of melancholy, a sadness that human beings must so often miss and misunderstand one another. This was in many ways the source of the comedy, as in a screwball plot where everyone is running in circles after each other, and yet there was an undercurrent of tragedy in spite of the guardedly optimistic endings. Can either Jim or Mildred ever find a satisfying relationship that gets beyond the surface differences which separate us? I’m not so sure.
Interestingly enough, the two authors had a friend in common — the poet Philip Larkin, who both provided the model for Amis’s antihero, and had a warm admiration for Ms. Pym, whom he called one of the most criminally underrated writers of our time. This connection seems most suitable, as she helped me to see poor old Jim in a different light, and maybe even forgive some of his excesses. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her novels, continuing to ponder her subtle perspective on men, women, the gulf between us, and the fragile bridges that we try to build.