I am re-reading some of Barbara Pym’s novels, but due to all that is going on at our house, it’s taking me forever to get through Excellent Women. Family members hear laughing coming from my bedroom at night sometimes, and they don’t even have to ask. It’s the Pym Effect. Works like magic at the end of a day.
I don’t care how bad the news is from the latest drama going on in my life, I’ve gotten to the place where I must laugh occasionally or die, and Pym is just the ticket. She’s an English satirist of the last century, said to have been one of the most underrated. She can describe a scene in three paragraphs of two women having lunch in a cafeteria, and it’s funny enough to bring tears down your cheeks. Even the names she chooses for her characters are funny enough to make you laugh out loud. It’s subtle stuff sometimes, not exactly slapstick; English manners in the post-World War II era, the Anglican church and the (largely female) parishioners, working in a dreary office, lonely women, and, of course, always the anthropologists.
You may not think of anthropology as a good source for humorous material, but Pym was an anthropologist, and has a rich load to draw from. In her hands, a meeting at the “Learned Society” in London becomes the source for chuckles, right down to the lineage charts and portraits of Indian chiefs stored in the restroom due to lack of space.
The chapter I’m on right now in Excellent Women describes the lead character, Mildred, invited by a single anthropologist (of course), Everard Bone, to his home for an impromptu dinner with his elderly mother and her mysterious friend, Mrs. Jessop.
Mildred is warned that his mother is eccentric, but just how eccentric Mildred doesn’t realize until she sits down. The conversational flow regarding the coming “Dominion of the Birds,” Jesuits and woodworm almost had me falling out of bed last night. You’ll have to read it to see what a dinner gathering looks like in Pym’s hands.
I don’t mean to suggest that the book(s) are all humor. The satire really says something about the life in 1952 Britain, the social mores of the time, the church women of that day, how many single “excellent women” were taken for granted and suffered lonely lives.
I’ve tried to analyze what makes the writer so funny. Satire like Pym’s would be difficult to write now as a comedy of manners is only possible where manners actually exist. The vulgarian state of the West has nothing to satirize anymore. We are beyond satire in ugliness and absurdity in our “culture” and the state of so much of Christianity.
Maybe I find her material so funny because pretentiousness and posturing is not only as old as mankind, but in the circles I’ve grown up and lived in, with its own lexicon of jargon, unwritten social rules and regulations, hypocrisy and posturing with a purpose, it looks all too familiar.
In any event, I have to finish Excellent Women soon as I’ve renewed it too many times at the library. I left off at a crisis point in the story. Julian, Rocky and Mildred are all drinking weak Indian tea in her small flat, and the scene is headed in another hilarious direction…