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English Ladies

This week I began my acquaintance with two grand dames of British domestic literary fiction from the first half of the twentieth century: Ivy Compton-Burnett and Barbara Pym. Both have the advantage of being ironic, witty novels that move briskly along and are each roughly one-sixth the size of Middlemarch.

A House and its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1935) involves the sequence of tragedies that befall the Edgeworth family through nature, folly, and convenience. Duncan, the Head of the Edgeworth house, is the petty dictator that governs with great opinion the smallest dealings and conversations of the home. He rules over wife, Ellen, his daughters Nance and Sibyl, his affable philandering heir and nephew Grant, and the servants. Following his wife’s death, Duncan unexpectedly leaps into a second marriage with unexpected results.

Duncan responds to the female influence in his house with his very liberal views - “Women talking, women walking, women weeping…Doing all they can do…Your chatter can wait, as it is what the day holds for you.” His last word in the novel is indicative of his constant attitude: "You are all at my hand to be taught."

Though the novel begins in insubstantial detail on Christmas Day following the Edgeworths to church, the cutting dialogue between the characters, the constant sarcasm and sparse descriptions (even of characters coming and going, which makes the novel difficult to dip in and out of) create a baroque drama. Compton-Burnett’s characters seem to be aware of their appearances in a play: “I will take that cue, and leave without a word,” says Oscar; “I will follow” one man promises his wife as she exits. The Edgeworths make asides, soliloquies, and are never without sharp irony or the capability of both banal cruelty and evil intent.

Though the novel is placed within a late Victorian/ early Edwardian context, I think the modern sensibilities of Compton-Burnett’s time assert themselves, with characters voicing “It must be nice to marry without losing one’s name” and “it would be rather nice to be involved in romance without any trouble for oneself.”

Though requiring careful attention (at least for me), Compton-Burnett’s tirelessly clever conversation and macabre drawing-room drama makes a House and its Head a worthy read. I am on the lookout for more of her works.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (doesn't her name suggest "prim"?) was published just over twenty-five years later in 1952. Excellent Women is a “wintry comedy” as A.N. Wilson says in his introduction, but not as dark and chilling as Compton-Burnett’s novel. The novel asks what does constitute a full life when one's story does not promise an ending of a wedding and the Austenesque "happily ever after"? Pym's heroine, Mildred Lathbury, is on the shelf in her thirties. Mildred is practical, church-going, contented with her solitude, and quick to offer a cup of tea. Wilson is quick to call her repressed, the signs being her aversion to sudden expenditures on flowers, indulging in celebratory wine, and exuding a sense of sexlessness. Mildred is a product of her times: she is cosseted in the social fabric of post-war Britain where thrift is a virtue, clothes are shabby, luxuries small, and one is served flavorless macaroni for dinner.
Mildred finds that she cannot escape her role as an "excellent woman": one of those women that men depend upon but could never marry. Her friends and acquaintances are constantly on the look out for a romance for Mildred, including setting her up with her priest, Father Julian Malory, though she is more of a Charlotte Lucas than an Elizabeth Bennett and not particularly romantic. Mildred is self-aware enough to begin the novel by warning “…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.”

Mildred’s narrow life of the church circle – its bazaars and services – and her work for destitute gentlewomen is enlarged when she gains new neighbors and the glamorous Mrs. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, moves into her building. Helena is Mildred's opposite: a sexy, flirtatious, working woman, and a poor house-maker. Helena is disparaging to Mildred and her church-attending and good works - “You put yourself too much in other people’s places…To be free and independent, that’s the thing.”

Mildred is won over by Helena's handsome husband Rockingham, who had been stationed in Italy to charm Wren officers. As Helena is presently in love with a fellow anthropologist, Everard Bone, Rocky is more than willing to spend his time wooing Mildred. Marital difficulties, anthropological meetings, and Father Malory’s sudden engagement to a beautiful but suspiciously charming widow complicate Mildred’s serene life of self-preservation and she finds herself wondering how her happily ever after will be scripted.

Barbara Pym has been called the Twentieth-Century’s Jane Austen. Philip Larkin, Pym's friend and admirer, was partially responsible for bringing Pym into the public eye, and since I like Larkin, I thought I should give her a try. I think Iris Murdoch’s husband John Bayley (Author of Elegy for Iris) read Pym as a comfort while his wife died, which can only be high praise.

But just as reading Jean Rhys was detrimental last year when I was not yet employed, I would advise against reading Excellent Women if one is feeling sensitively single. If one is not, however, please read it.


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