Books Like Excellent Women by Barbara Pym | Suggested Reading

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A Glass of Blessings Pym is best known for studies of unmarried women and their position in society, but she has also done several portrayals of married women who are slightly bored, who feel the romance and excitement have gone from their marriages, and who would like some adventure. These women, such as Wilmet Forsyth of A Glass of Blessings (1958), do not work or have careers. So Wilmet turns her energies toward searching for a possible affair.

She considers three men — a priest; a friend's husband; and, most seriously, a family friend and language instructor. She has a number of dinners with the latter, takes his class to be around him more, and tries to create a romance; but he turns out to be a contented homosexual and she settles for friendship with him and his "friend."

The heroine's easy nonjudgmental acceptance of a homosexual relationship is noteworthy in a book written in the 1950s.

Wilmet reaffirms the values of 1950s, however, when she comes to appreciate her marriage and her life as they are; her husband becomes more interesting to her, especially when the possibility is raised that he might be about to stray. As in several Pym novels, these affairs remain only "possibilities."

The novel appears to be an affirmation of quiet marriages and the rather uneventful daily life of women like Wilmet. Two very different women — her oft-married and outgoing motherin-law, Sybil, and her quiet, mousy friend, Mary Beamish — teach Wilmet to appreciate her life by the examples they set. Wilmet concludes that, "there was no reason why my life should not be a glass of blessings too. Perhaps it always had been without my realizing it."

Wilmet resembles Mildred of Excellent Women in many ways; she is sensitive, intuitive, easily discouraged, and never quite satisfied. Both novels are first-person narrations, which heightens the resemblance. In some ways these lead characters are aware of being less interesting than some of the more colorful characters around them.

In this case, Wilmet seems a little stuffy compared to her iconoclastic, outspoken mother-in-law. But she endears herself to the reader, especially in her tolerant, flexible amusement at most of the behavior around her.

One of Pym's more interesting male characters is the moody, enigmatic, somewhat disreputable language teacher, Piers Longridge — a mystery which Wilmet finally solves when her discovery of his male roommate ends her fantasy of an affair.

Many of Pym's novels involve sensitive characters who are easily upset or worried about what seem trivial matters. Thus the author constantly gets humorous effects by the magnification of small incidents. For instance, in A Glass of Blessings, a servant's theft of a Faberge egg becomes a major, recurrent, amusing discussion point.

The reader finishes A Glass of Blessings with a particularly warm feeling because the author ends it in a round of marriages, engagements, and reconciliation. This celebratory conclusion recalls the festive endings of many Shakespeare romantic comedies and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1785).

The Sweet Dove Died Like Excellent Women, The Sweet Dove Died (1978) concerns a middle-aged prosperous woman living alone; but Leonora Eyre does not consider herself to be especially virtuous nor excellent.

She is aware of being unreligious, beautiful, vain, selfish. While courted by a middle-aged antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, she becomes attracted to, and eventually obsessed with, his handsome, indecisive nephew, James. This triangle offers plenty of opportunities for a witty study of the generation gap as Leonora tries to center James's life around herself, even to the extent of having his possessions moved into a neighboring apartment while he is away, so she can keep him close.

James becomes briefly involved with a determined young woman, Phoebe, whom Leonora vanquishes easily. Then James, tempted by homosexuality, takes up with an American professor, Ned, whose competition is too much for Leonora. The attractive but indecisive James is caught up in a confusion of sexual choices and options with a freedom unknown in Leonora's or his uncle Humphrey's generation.

One of Pym's usual themes, women looking for love, recurs in The Sweet Dove Died, although her vision is somewhat darker here than in her 1950s novels. Leonora is unlikable and manipulative, but eventually moves the reader as she surrenders to a terrible loneliness and depression upon the apparent loss of James. She becomes aware of emptiness, not only in her life but in herself, realizing she is a materialistic woman who likes comfort and position more than people. Leonora has always felt smugly superior to other women similar to herself, some of whom are dependent upon young men or on cats for companionship; but she turns out to be vulnerable and, in the book's emotional climax, confides in one of these very women. Unable to love, she is vouchsafed some hope for appropriate companionship in the final pages, even if it means settling for Humphrey.

Pym's books sometimes resemble Jane Austen filtered through Henry James. The Jamesian influence, particularly evident in The Sweet Dove Died, results in many scenes where characters leave their most important motives unspoken; characters have a silent unspoken understanding or conspiracy; or characters communicate and understand without speaking. A particular Jamesian "confrontation" scene is a late one between Leonora and Ned, after she has lost James to Ned, but Ned is tired of James and wishes to "return" him to Leonora. In this very literary scene, the two characters actually discuss Henry James and relate their situation to him, emphasizing that Pym is aware of this strain in her work.

Thematically, all Pym's books are related, with themes reinforcing one another, and characters sometimes turning up in several books. The author illustrates a literary ideal of "consistency with variety" — the same themes and types, variously presented. Four of the novels contain self-aware references to Jane Austen.

Some Tame Gazelle Some Tame Gazelle (1950) was Pym's first published novel, mostly written in her youth during the 1930s. Its humorous portrayal of two sisters living together foreshadows how the author lived most of her life with her own sister. While predicting her own future in fiction, she also included humorous portraits of her college friends. On this occasion the New York Times pronounced Pym "funnier" than Jane Austen.

Less Than Angels Less Than Angels (1955) is a sparkling satire of anthropology scholars (who figure in several other novels). It asserts that intellectuals spend their time in "petty disputes," "squabbling about trivialities," and describes a seminar as a "barbarous ceremony, possibly a throwback to the days when Christians were thrown to the lions," in which "somebody prepared and read a paper . . . after which everybody took great pleasure in tearing it and its authors to pieces." Must reading for academicians, this novel is the only one by Pym in which the main couple live together unmarried, until the man's unexpected death. Less Than Angels contains an extended quotation from Jane Austen's Persuasion, and some of its characters are comparable to those in Austen's work.

No Fond Return of Love No Fond Return of Love (1962) contains yet another pairing of two somewhat lonely women, uneasy friends and part time rivals for a particularly vain, unworthy married man. As usual their competitive scheming and mild trickery are sweetly comic. The author frequently employs her favorite point of view technique — entering two or three characters' minds in successive paragraphs at the same moment. There is a sudden appearance by four characters from A Glass of Blessings, touring a country home. In an authorial in-joke, somebody comments of them: "What odd people they were! Like characters in a novel." Pym's novel Some Tame Gazelle also turns up on a character's bookshelf here, and there is a concluding allusion to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814).

Quartet in Autumn Quartet in Autumn (1977) addresses the problems of old age. The four main characters, two men and two women, have worked at an office together for many years. Their lives are disrupted when the two women retire and, soon after, one dies, apparently of anorexia. All four characters have trouble adapting to change of any kind — change in office procedure, in schedules, in eating habits, as well as the moral and social change they constantly observe in the world.

An Unsuitable Attachment An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1962, published 1982) halted Barbara Pym's career when it was turned down by several publishers. Now it is held in nearly as high esteem as the others, although a few critics continue to argue that is, marginally, her weakest novel. The "Unsuitable Attachment" of the title refers to a woman's liking for a younger man — a similar situation to that in The Sweet Dove Died, but this time, she gets the man. The two autobiographical sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, Belinda and Harriet Bede, appear unexpectedly in Rome where most of the cast is visiting.

Jane and Prudence Jane and Prudence (1981) contains several references and parallels to Jane Austen, in this case her character Emma. It features another pair of women, the young and glamorous Prudence and the older Jane, comfortably married and sometimes afraid that life has settled into a dull routine. Jane lives vicariously through her romantic friend Prudence. As often in Pym novels, the men in these women's lives are rather dreamy, complacent, or impractical creatures who need to be spoiled and pampered by indulgent women.

Although one man is a bit of a rogue, as usual everyone is finally likable, and Prudence ends up "overwhelmed by the richness of her life."

A Few Green Leaves A Few Green Leaves (1980), the last novel Pym wrote, deals with her favorite kind of people — subtle, intelligent, well- read, and possessing finetuned sensibilities. Its heroine, Emma (twice compared to Jane Austen's Emma), is middle-aged, cultured, scholarly, and presented with several romantic choices. Esther Clovis, a minor character in Excellent Women and Less Than Angels, dies in this novel, in which the novelist outdoes herself at her talent for droll nomenclature; the cast includes Miss Grundy, Mrs. Bland, Miss Lickerish, Magdalen Raven, Isabel Mound, and Heather Blenkinsop — excellent women, all.

Crampton Hodnet Left unfinished in the late 1930s and "assembled" by the editor of Pym's autobiography, Crampton Hodnet (1985) was hailed as the author's most laughably funny novel, although the plot may have been her most trivial. It concerns two ill-matched, uncompleted romances in a gossipy village and, although she appeared last, the first of Pym's timid, wistful, but humorously self-aware spinster heroines.

Pym left An Academic Affair unfinished in the late 1940s and it was enthusiastically received upon publication in 1986. The heroine, a bored discontented housewife with empty days, somewhat resembles Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. Instead of seeking an affair, she tries to become involved in her teacher husband's research and campus political infighting. But she finds he is having an affair; he is one of Pym's few major characters who actually strays. The author permits another reconciliatory ending, however.

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