Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.
I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.
Amen, sister Mildred! I felt so much kinship to this single woman, obviously competent and to whom others turn when they want something done and don’t want to do it themselves. At a tourist site, someone turns to Mildred to ask directions and says, “I hope you didn’t mind me asking, but you looked as if you would know the way.” I’ve had the same thing happen to me frequently. Apparently I look like I know what I’m doing, despite the fact that I’m often wondering about my own competence! (One of my coworkers once told me that he figured the world was split into patients and nurses and that I would be a head-nurse. I’m still wondering if this was a compliment or an insult.)
It’s no secret that there are tasks that tend to get heaped on single women. It is assumed that because you don’t have a husband or children, you have oodles of spare time in which to do things for others. So you can be the one to do the emotional labour of keeping up friendships or keeping in touch with family. This can work for you or against you. You can use it to your advantage as Mildred does:
”I began piling cups and saucers on to a tray. I suppose it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place to choose than the sink, where neither of the men would follow me?”
She can find solitude at the kitchen sink because, as she told us earlier, “I had observed that men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them.” Hence the church-going men who hang around the jumble sales and drink tea, but, like the drones they are, do very little else.
It has always surprised me how much society pushes us toward romantic relationships. Like Mildred, I’m just fine with my single status—I can certainly see the married women around me struggling with challenges that I don’t have to face. It may be a liability someday when I need an advocate when I’m in assisted living, for example, but having a spouse or children doesn’t guarantee that they will show up to do this task. I had to laugh when one relative spent ages agonizing to me about whether to get divorced and then turned around and worried about whether I would get married!
I am just fine being numbered among the excellent women.