Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Because the UK is celebrating Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee around now, this week's books all have a first publication date in 1952. Some of them have vaguely-applicable titles.
[Mildred Lathbury lives in a flat in London, and has a new downstairs neighbour]
I met her for the first time by the dustbins, later that afternoon…. We were, superficially at any rate, a very unlikely pair to become friendly. She was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her…
I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to. I did part-time work at an organization which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that was just the kind of person who might one day become one. Mrs Napier, with her gay trousers and her anthropology, obviously never would.
I was thinking about her as I changed to go out to supper at the vicarage, and was glad that I was wearing respectable clothes when I met her on the stairs with a tall, fair man.
Observations: Mildred’s life is going to be agreeably enlarged by her new neighbours, and there’ll also be entertaining shenanigans in the parish, with a new woman in the life of the vicar. Barbara Pym’s books are intricate stories of interactions, every word and deed scrutinized. They are very funny and you feel that they give a true picture of what it was actually like to live in London in the 1950s, particularly if you were a respectable unmarried woman, past her first youth – Barbara Pym’s own situation. They have a steely centre, and are not as sentimental or as twee as they might at first appear. Mrs Napier's trousers show her to be rather racy.
Links up with: Jane Eyre is here, and Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym (the name is a coincidence, though Tey’s Miss Pym would fit right in to a Barbara Pym novel) has an entry here. The poet Philip Larkin was a fan and friend of Barbara Pym. The milieu resembles Muriel Spark’s books about the 1950s, here and here.
The picture is from the Library of Congress photostream on Flickr.