In London over the weekend I picked up a copy of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952), and devoured it. Notwithstanding Alexander McCall Smith’s remark in the new introduction—“One does not laugh out loud while reading Barbara Pym; that would be too much. One smiles.”—I think it’s one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Perhaps this is because there is so much of Mum contained in the voice of the narrator Mildred Lathbury, everything from a profound distaste for being addressed as “dear,” through all forms of sharp observation, treating seriously what others too distracted by self-importance regard as trivia, to an extremely well-developed and healthy sense of the ridiculous. Mrs. Gray, William Caldicote, Mrs. Bone, Sister Blatt, and the mysterious Miss Jessop are delightful exempla of the middle-class urban grotesque then flourishing in postwar London. Following last week’s deeply shocking riots, I suspect the metropolis is beginning to re-acquire something of the same bleak atmosphere, though admittedly free of shared bathrooms and smoke from dismal coal fires. Certainly Mum had a complete run of the novels of Barbara Pym neatly arranged on the shelf above the phone at Denham Place, and I have a vivid recollection of her quietly chuckling to herself whilst reading one, propped up in bed with a cup of tea. Why did I not follow the prompt while she was still alive? No doubt part of the answer is contained in the question, but I am sure it is better late than never. I hope she would be pleased; I am simply grateful:
Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin.
The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.
There can be no exchange of glances over the telephone, no breaking into laughter.
Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.
Men love messing about with paint and distemper.
I felt it was not a very suitable remark for a clergyman’s widow to have made, though it was certainly amusing in a rather cheap way.
I supposed that Dora and I, who had both been fat as schoolgirls, could now stand side by side singing “Frail children of dust, And feeble as frail,” without a tremor or the ghost of a smile. It was rather sad, really.
“Hullo! You look like a wet week at Blackpool,” Sister Blatt’s jolly voice boomed out of the dusk.
“Do you think they have jumble sales in Belgravia?” asked Mrs. Gray; “that hadn’t occurred to me.”
The room seemed suddenly very hot and I saw Mrs. Gray’s face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot colour.
“Do you think Mrs. Gray will marry again?” I asked craftily…/ “I don’t know…widows nearly always do marry again.” / “Oh, they have the knack of catching a man. Having done it once I suppose they can do it again. I suppose there’s nothing in it if you know how.” / “Like mending a fuse,” I suggested, though I had not previously taken this simple view of seeking and finding a life partner.
“I wonder if they have any picture postcards of this garden?” / “Oh to send to William, you mean?” / “Yes, perhaps to William, but I’ve already sent him one.” / “Oh, you mustn’t overdo it, or he’ll think you’re running after him.” / I agreed that I mustn’t and imagined William’s beady eyes, round and alarmed.
She did not look like the kind of person who could possibly do anything for which an apology might be demanded.
Miss Jessop made a quavering sound which might have been “Yes” or “No” but it was not allowed to develop into speech, for Mrs. Bone broke in by telling Everard that Miss Jessop wouldn’t want any sherry.
Everard Bone was at a meeting of the Prehistoric Society. It sounded like a joke.
“Miss Jessop and I are very much interested in the suppression of woodworm in furniture.”
Birds, worms, and Jesuits…it might almost have been a poem, but I could not remember that anybody had ever written it...