Some more excellent women-far away from the Frozen North

Your Frozen North weather report: Still Frozen. Activities include, sitting in a pub in front of a roaring fire watching icicles drip outside the window. The weather is freezing (literally) and although we haven’t had any more snow for the last few days, it is still about a foot deep outside. Everywhere is made narrower and more inaccessible by piles and mounts of snow everywhere. So, still cabin feverish, but beginning to get out more now.  Thank you wonderful local library for renewing all my books. While running out of books in this house is not imminent, we are not getting postal deliveries so buying books online isn’t really working. And any dedicated bibliophile knows that it’s all about getting your hands on different books, no matter how many you have already lying around.My book clubs have been postponed so storing up great thoughts about great books!

Today’s two books are both by Barbara Pym, who wrote Excellent Women that I posted on some months ago. Jane and Prudence, and A Glass of Blessings are both as good in their way, the idiosyncratic style of describing women and their lives being an acquired taste.

These books are both set in the 1950s, they feature women who live undramatic lives, and no great events challenge the follow of the narrative. So far, so Austen? These do remind me of Austen inasmuch that I cannot easily say what happens in a hugely dramatic way, and indeed in many ways are less significant than Austen in terms of the protagonists carrying on with their lives at the end of the novels more or less as they began.

To see these books in a negative light is too easy and not really fair. They are cleverly written intense perspectives on the lives of women. They are financially well off, but there is something essentially missing in their lives. Easily the most painfully accurate characterisation ( at least in my eyes) is Jane. She is a vicar’s wife with no ability to cook, no dress sense and not really very effective with the parishioners. Ouch! Happily she has a daughter who knows where the kitchen is,  a’woman who obliges’, and her husband  seems blissfully ignorant of the domestic  world collapsing around him. It’s only when she tries to matchmake her Oxford friend that confusion breaks out. Prudence is twenty nine and sorely in need of help. The problem is that Vicar’s wives in this generation were not necessarily the best at romantic assistance. This is very enjoyable for those who revel in nuance, detail, setting, clothing and all those small things that make this writing memorable. I found it painfully funny, not in a laugh out loud way but gently amusing and not challenging.

Equally A Glassful of Blessings is a careful, gentle portrait of a bored wife, Wilmet. She has no money worries, her husband is generous to a fault, even her home and social life is organised for her. She becomes attracted by the clergy and people of a local Anglo-Catholic church, and gets embroiled in their concerns and lives. She also becomes involved with Piers, brother of a friend, and what he is really involved in. I found this an interesting, if rather slow moving book, nicely detailed and perceptive of motives. Wilmet is an unsympathetic character but means well, and her innocent observations are gently amusing. I think that this book is for the Pym devotee, rather than someone new to the author. I like these books, but I’m not convinced that they have dated well. Jane and Prudence is the more interesting but both are ideal for something a bit different and quite restful.

Excellent Women…and post watershed tv

Following my previous post about coffee morning antics, I thought I would mention two very alternative views of the church of England. The first is “Rev.” on BBC 2 (and therefore iplayer). This series, part written by its leading actor, the lovely Tom Hollander, fondly remembered in this house for “The Cambridge Spies”, began high in fruity language and innuendo but now seems to have settled into its more realistic stride.  I just like the truthful depiction of the normal confusion which reigns in the vicarage, with the doorbell going and the undrinkable coffee (sorry everyone that knows me…). My clergy spy has never worked quite so inner city, but the situations that Adam finds himself in are not so far from daily experience. Not sure that the long suffering wife is so accurate, but, there, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The other view of Anglican life is far away from the days of women bishops, even women priests. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym is a picture of an excellent woman, Mildred, a clergy daughter with a fondness for the vicar in  post war London. Her settled existence of helping with jumble sales and doing good works is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a new couple to share her house and herincreasing involvement with their exotic lives and friends.The arrival of  an attractive widow in the parish means romantic entanglements get even more complicated. All is resolved in the end, but not without some tense moments for all concerned.

This is not a novel to be read for  earth shattering events, of which there are none, but more the funny and fascinating descriptions of people and buildings caught up in a landscape affected by war, shortages and acceptance, but also staging their own demonstrations that they exist and matter. Anthropology, obsessions with killing birds, the influence of strong religion on the previously unquestioning soul all mean that life is so painfully revealed, yet kindly treated. This is a bit of a novel of manners rather than plot, but none the worse for that. After all, quite a few people are mildly interested in every single  word that a certain Miss Austen wrote…

So, two very different views of life in the vicarage…