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Ladies in Distress

Excellent Women

by Barbara Pym
E.P. Dutton, 256 pp., $7.95

Quartet in Autumn

by Barbara Pym
E.P. Dutton, 218 pp., $7.95

The Bad Sister

by Emma Tennant
Coward, McCann and Geoghegen, 228 pp., $8.95

Great Granny Webster

by Caroline Blackwood
Scribner’s, 135 pp., $7.95

In London last year, the Times Literary Supplement asked a number of writers to draw up a list of overrated and underrated writers. By no means a thankless task, but among the sneers that leapt to the page were words of praise, from Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, which served to call attention to Barbara Pym. She had brought out six quiet novels in the Fifties, but had gone unsung, and even, during the eventful late Sixties and after, unpublished. Now she has been sung, and is “the in-thing to read,” according to one British librarian. American readers are hereby offered an example of her early work and of her late. Anglophiles may be promised a treat, but unless she is to be troubled by the kind of higher-philistine condescension which has obscured the reception of Larkin’s poetry in America, other readers will like her almost as much.

In the Literary Supplement‘s parent paper, the Times, a series of advertisements has long been seen—appeals for money on behalf of the Distressed Gentlefolks Aid Association, accompanied by a fine-boned grieving elderly face, as of a Plantagenet on evil days. It was possible to feel, rather as Wilde felt about the death of little Nell, that it would take a heart of stone to accede to these requests, but Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, published in 1952, might seem to disagree. The heroine, Mildred Lathbury, “did part-time work at an organization which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.” Mildred endures the type of suffering which is endured by the well-bred, frugal, plucky spinster. Modern literature has been considerate of victims: but this sort has often been passed over, or punished.

Mildred’s distress may be understood both as that of an unmarried woman and as that of a woman who suffers the usual disadvantages of her sex: Philip Larkin has suggested that the men Miss Pym writes about behave worse than the women, and her novels could fairly be regarded as grist to the feminist mill. But the present novel makes much of the vestal Mildred: here is a virgin who is forever “venturing” or “faltering,” sipping tea or sherry, catching the drone of music from a nearby church. “Love is rather a terrible thing,” she reflects. “Not perhaps my cup of tea.” She identifies herself as one of a “crowd” of “excellent women connected with the church.” The church she attends, St. Mary’s, is High Anglican to Anglo-Catholic, and is situated in a decayed or, as Anthony Powell once put it, “doomed” quarter near the center of London, around Victoria, a quarter of the forlorn and the genteel, where a herd of stricken deer find pasture. An estranged couple move into the flat next to hers, Helena and Rockingham Napier. Helena is a godless anthropologist and her husband a glamorous, feckless former naval officer, the sort of man, as Larkin notes, who is capable of handing a woman a bunch of chrysanthemums not bought in a shop but picked from his own garden—“dragged up roughly,” says Larkin, with a flash of anger. Helena has started to prefer to her husband a fellow anthropologist, cross and serious Everard Bone. Meanwhile Julian the vicar, with his biretta, wants to marry a glamorous worldly widow, Allegra Gray. In the fullness of time, Mildred and Everard make friends.

These storms in a teacup might seem at first to be due to show that Mildred is a dull and fragile creature who leans on the Church for lack of anything else. But it is soon apparent that she is not, that she is shrewd and cool and self-possessed and stylish. She is apt to present herself as a lady who knows what other ladies know, and who is addressing a readership no better informed:

Julian began to explain to us what an anthropologist was, or I suppose he did, but as it is unlikely that any anthropologist will read this, I can perhaps say that it appeared to be something to do with the study of man and his behavior in society—particularly among “primitive communities,” Julian said.

Before long, however, this narrator, for all her “perhapses,” has managed a brilliant and, I am in a position to state, accurate account of the community of anthropologists to which Helena belongs, with its “learned society.” The more than nominal excellence of the narrator becomes clear enough in an exchange with Everard:

You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” I asked in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.”

You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?” he said, smiling.

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

They are for being unmarried,” I said, “and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.”

Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?”

Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.”

Being without family and having the sort of friends for whom she isn’t always able to feel enthusiasm, Mildred qualifies for the compassion which we extend to poor things, orphans of the storm. But she is an orphan who is alert to the falsity of much of that compassion. When Julian remarks that Allegra has had a hard life and is an orphan, Mildred is unmoved. “Well, of course, a lot of people over thirty are orphans.” Women like Mildred have been important to the England which has insulted them, which calls them, using the words that Lawrence used of Jane Austen, “narrow-gutted spinsters.”

All the novels at present under review could be thought to have originated in themes and initiatives of two hundred years ago, when an interest in victims began to quicken, and romantic attitudes were named, commended and criticized. It is said of Barbara Pym, as it has been said of other writers, that she is like Jane Austen, but this time at least the comparison needn’t be resented. What is mostly meant by it is that she is a novelist of manners who writes about marriage and marriageability with the unromantic eye of a noticing, “positive” spinster. But the comparison can be taken further. There is a current reading of Jane Austen which holds that she is moved by the romantic attitudes with which she finds fault, and of Miss Pym, too, it can be claimed that she is both unromantic and romantic. The extent to which she is the second can be gauged by the extent to which the narrative, smilingly self-defined as that of a church-crawling “excellent woman,” has in it the voice of the outcast. Mildred’s authentic excellence is partly a matter of her ability to bear, and to take into constructive account, the responsibilities, sorrows, and incitements to self-pity, of such a plight.

Excellent Women made me think of Mansfield Park, in which the orphan Fanny lives, under insult, in the grand house of that name and is assailed by the blandishments of the talented but untrustworthy Crawfords, Henry and his sister Mary. The Crawfords come a cropper, and Mary, intelligent and delightful, is severely blamed by the writer for being light-mindedly solicitous of her brother when he is exposed as a sexual delinquent. Fanny does not come a cropper. She is like one of the fortunate foundlings of the romantic and Gothic tradition, who are not absent from Jane Austen’s books. She gets her man, and her Mansfield Park, and her rewards or deserts may be said to include Lionel Trilling’s description of her as embodying the spirit of Christian humility.

Mildred’s progress is not very different from Fanny’s. Here, too, Christian humility is assailed by the talented and untrustworthy, and rewarded with a good man, with whom she is to live happily if humbly ever after. (Miss Pym’s novels can be conscious of one another, and in Less Than Angels of 1955 we read that “Everard had married a rather dull woman who was nevertheless a great help to him in his work.”) At the same time, there is more than a touch of the Gothic novel in Excellent Women: the grand names conferred on Everard and on Rockingham Napier suggest the Cavalier strain which is evident there, the heroine’s faltering and venturing are Gothic acts and words, and Everard is the hostile male of the genre who grows into her lover and savior. He is Mildred’s Rochester, just as the pseudo-orphan Allegra Gray is her vampire: “I saw Mrs. Gray’s face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed….” We have to disbelieve Mildred when she protests, when she “hastens to add,” that, plain as she is, she is not at all like Jane Eyre, “who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person.”

In the same way, another of Mrs. Pym’s books—like Excellent Women, one of her best—made me think of Northanger Abbey, whose heroine is bemused by a reading of Gothic novels, and which itself resembles the kind of novel it is laughing at. In A Glass of Blessings, published in 1958, Wilmet, a young woman with an unresponsive husband, lacks experience: “I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn’t even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church.” She yields to “wild imaginings,” which remove her from “reality,” and which concern not only the “baroque horror” of a furniture depository but a possible platonic infidelity. “Perhaps,” though, she finally wonders, her life has been a “glass of blessings,” after all. The reference is to the very beautiful poem by Herbert, “The Pulley,” which supplies the novel’s title and epigraph:

   When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span.

Herbert goes on to say that man has been denied the gift of repose: “Let him be rich and weary.” We may be meant to decide that Wilmet has been restless, and romantic, and had to be chastened. But then we might also have decided that she had quite a lot to be restless about.

Precious few rewards, desserts, or blessings await the four sufferers in Barbara Pym’s new novel, Quartet in Autumn. Two men and two women, all near retirement, share an office in a huge firm whose business is too boring to mention. One of the men is an expert on the events of the Christian Year. Operated on for cancer, one of the women, Marcia, putters about collecting things and brooding over her surgeon, and then dies. Afterward, the other male colleague opens a drawer in Marcia’s house:

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