I had plans for this week - mostly involving rather more reading and blogging about Barbara Pym but a series of minor frustrations and discomforts - everything ranging from the under wire on my bra snapping at a most inopportune moment and stabbing me hours before I could get home to dispose of the dratted thing to my email account being hacked - long term it's the email which has caused more pain. I cannot regain access to it despite spending what turned into hours of trying, which was followed by more hours of setting up a new account and changing passwords on everything else, eventually I'll have to track down some lost addresses as well and there were a few outstanding things for work. Otherwise I'm hoping that's an end to it and it is at least nice to no longer open my inbox to find nothing but spam and mailing list bumph.
Meanwhile I have been slowly working my way through 'Excellent Women' again, which was the first Pym I ever read. Although I still have a few to read for the first time (I have, but haven't read, 'Quartet in Autumn' and 'Civil to Strangers', don't have, and haven't read 'The Sweet Dove Died' or 'A Few Green Leaves') I was really in the mood for 1950's Pym where if she's not at her best (though I suspect she is) I'm certainly most comfortable with her.
The first thing that struck me about 'Excellent Women' was that it's much better than I remembered, I mean I remember it being good, but second time around it felt much more than that. I see a lot of my own life in this book; I live alone, am increasingly set in my ways (as is my partner, if we ever do live together it will have to be in a very big house, or a house with a very big shed) and know my share of excellent women. There is also Mildred's preoccupation with food, something I particularly associate with Pym's writing. 'Excellent Women' mentions a lunch she throws together of lettuce dressed with olive oil, some Camembert, and fresh bread which I assume is at least partly a reference to Elizabeth David's writing as well as the influence of her own time in Naples, she also has a Chinese cookbook on her shelf amongst the religious texts one might expect from a vicars daughter.
I doubt that I picked up on the food references as much first time round, but they point to the romantic element of Mildred's character, suggesting a passion that's well disguised behind sensible fawn skirts, brown hats, and the obligatory cups of tea. It also makes me question how reliable a narrator she is when it comes to her own affairs, especially her relationship with Everard Bone...
I have noticed that a few people reviewing Pym books this week have mentioned how they like rather than love her (this includes me) and I wonder if this is partly because plot plays a secondary role to character. I've undoubtedly enjoyed 'Excellent Women' more this time because knowing the plot, such as it is, has left me free to enjoy the detail and appreciate the sly wit behind her observations. Mildred's life, though it has it's pleasures, clearly lacks - there are humiliating references to her spinsterhood and yet she's also clear eyed about the downside of marriage.
When I say I think a book has aged well or stood the test of time, rather than being of it's time, I mean that what I notice are the things which haven't changed, this is why the best of Pym has stood the test of time. When I read about Mildred the 60 years since 'Excellent Women' was first published fall away, the odd detail may indicate the books vintage but in essence everything, and everybody, is recognisable so thank you for Pym reading week and the nudge to re-assess her work.