Barbara Pym by Michael Cotsell (auth.)

By Michael Cotsell (auth.)

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The change wrought in British society by the war is evident in Excellent Women. Some of the characters worship in one aisle of a church which has been bombed: "We had made our way through the ruins, where torn-down wall tablets and an occasional urn or cherub's head were stacked in heaps, and where, incongruous in the middle of so much desolation, we had come upon a little grey woman heating a saucepan of coffee on a Primus stove' (ch. 6). On the other hand the new impersonal modernity is imaged in a scene in a self-service cafeteria: 'The room was enormous, like something in a nightmare ....

It seemed very quiet now. (ch. I) Imagery of the emotions and the spirit - the flowers, the rain, the religiose architecture - are taken up into the solid respectabilities of established wealth and social standing; the glimpse of femininity, the lace curtains, like the hem of a petticoat, appears incongruous. The house is the home of the elderly spinster Maude Doggett, also of her plain and no-longer young companion, Jessica Morrow. These two characters are familiar to Pym readers from their appearance in Jane and Prudence, which, though written later than Crampton Hodnet, was published earlier.

Would they all crowd into the trench of sodden clay, like a newly dug grave, she and Lyall, the Calyxes, the Vicar, Lord Stamp, old Lady Holland, the idea of it suddenly became funny. (fo. 4) The movement of feeling from sentiment to desolation to satire is attractive. The same range of responses come into the representation of the feelings of the young woman Flora. Flora is unsure whether to be broken-hearted at the departure of her love to war or not, unsure even whether he is her love. The parting is unsatisfactory to her, but she is pleased to be able to arrange his photograph amongst the other objects in her room.

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