(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 0. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1992)


The importance of being trivial : Barbara Pym's Excellent Women

Linda Richard (Université Grenoble 2)

"The new curate seemed quite a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks, when he sat down (1)." This, the opening sentence of Barbara Pym's first published novel, with its unabashed emphasis on the so-called trivial detail only a woman would care to notice and trouble to write about concerns both the essence of her fictional world and the seeds of the discomfort she continues to arouse. For, if parochial settings, a focus on domesticity and an unerring eye for the quirks of the daily round are to be equated with the trivial, then Barbara Pym's novels have all the requisites, whilst their preponderance of single women devoted to the minutiae of parish life seems at fist sight to be adding fuel to the cliché that trivia is a female affliction. But this is precisely the point, for her novels, particularly Excellent Women, establish a parallel between the male view of women's concerns as trivial, society's view of the spinster as lacking - that is, manless - and thus by necessity obsessed with the petty, and the literary canon's view of such subject-matter as lacking - in depth - and thus unworthy of serious attention.

Indeed, a brief case history of Pym's fortunes serves to illustrate the latter assumption. Her firs six novels, published between 1950 and 1961, claimed a modest but steady following,


1. Some Tame Gazelle. London: Grafton, 1981. 5.


as befitted her status as minor woman author. (2) Her seventh novel, however, was rejected by Cape, and for the next 16 years all her attempts to get her works into print - including Quartet in Autumn, later to be short-listed for the Booker Prize - proved fruitless. (3) An unexpected reversal occurred when she was named in the Times Literary Supplement as the "most underestimated living author of the century," upon which critical interest in her was revived.(4) However, even critics favourable towards her have tended to patronise, discount or virtually apologise for her love of detail, thus continuing to equate it with the trivial.(5) The first claim of the present paper is, therefore, that the value of Pym's work exists, not in spite of its stress on detail, but because of it - in other words, that it is "important to be trivial," both for her heroines, and for her writing itself. Concomitant with these favourable reviews, though, have been reactions ranging from irritation to contempt and derision, that any serious attention should be paid to her at all. A. S. Byatt, for example, refers to Pym's admirers as "fogeies of various ages" and complains "Why this sudden blossoming of critical attention to Pym's oeuvre ?," arguing that her books are simply a "good read" and that the "feminist-academic seriousness" devoted to them is "phoney." (6) Why, one might ask, the strong reaction? Recent feminist criticism has indeed focused on rethinking critical interpretations of women's texts, and on examining the "good reads" in a new light, considering that "twentieth century critics have taught generations of students to equate popularity wit debasement... domesticity with triviality, and (both) of these, implicitly, with womanly inferiority (7)." popularity indeed appears to have a distinct stigma attached to it, and Barbara Pym, as a popular author writing about women's concerns, is thus doubly open to attack. The second purpose of this paper is, therefore, particularly in view of the above-mentioned reactions, to suggest that the author's use of the trivial is more subversive than it would at first appear.


2. Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958) and No Fond Return of Love (1961), all published by Cape. All subsequent references to Excellent Women will be abridged to EW and are from the Penguin 1980 edition.
3. Macmillan later published Quartet in Autumn (1977), The Sweet Dove Died (1978), A Few Green Leaves(1980), and the rejected novel An Unsuitable Attachment (1982).
4. Larkin, Philip, "The World of Barbara Pym." TLS (11 March 77).
5. See Larkin, Philip and Rossen, Janice. The World of Barbara Pym. London : Macmillan, 1987. 178.
6. Byatt, A.S., "Marginal Lives," TLS (8 Aug. 86).
7. Tompkins, Jane P., "Sentimental Power," The New Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Showalter, London : The Virago Press Ltd, 1986. 82.


The world depicted in Excellent Women, Pym's second novel, is at first sight one of female conformity to a preordained role; its heroine, Mildred Lathbury, is but one of a myriad of unmarried creatures who form the backbone of the church and whose existence revolves around helping others. The term "excellent women" both refers to this stereotyped image of the spinster and ironically undermines it, for the excellence in question is defined in terms of her willingness to serve a man; be it in home, parish or office, she is to be found cooking, sorting out jumble or indexing for the stronger sex. (8) This order of things is accepted with apparent submissiveness; indeed, these women perpetuate their own stereotype, eagerly vying for the privilege of laundering this Father's albs or proof-reading that Professor's notes, and altogether appearing more interested in the lives of others than in their own. Underlying the conformity - and the comedy - of the image is a veiled protest, present from the outset. The novel opens with Mildred caught in the act of conforming to the role allotted to her as she watches her new neighbours moving in :

'Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there's something happening!" The voice belonged to Mr Mallet, one of our churchwardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my own front door. (EW 7)

For women of Mildred's ilk, there are indeed few rights, and even her front door, which leads to a mere flat, rather than to a real home - that matrix of feminity so often idealised (9) - marks out her status :

[...] the two flats (were) not properly self-contained and without every convenience. 'I have to s hare a bathroom', I had so often murmured, almost with shame, as if I personally had been found unworthy of a bathroom of my own. (EW 8)

Throughout the novel, Mildred outwardly appears, like her flat, "not properly self-contained and without every convenience"; incomplete without the amenity of a man, she becomes a public convenience, there to be used by others. The sharing of a bathroom, perceived by Mildred as a "heavy burden," is but an expression of the weight of society's view of her as


8. Graham, Robert J. "Cumbered with Much Serving," Mosaic 17 (1984). Radner, Sandford. "Barbara Pym's People," Western Humanities Review 39 (1985). Both fully discuss Pym's portrayal as excellent women.
9. Stubs, Patricia. Women and Fiction - Feminism and the Novel. Sussex and York, 1979. 6.


underdog. At the same time, having a bathroom of one's own is not a symbol of independence, but the official stamp of recognition that one is with man. The sole right accorded to the spinster is that of proving her worth via service, and thus staving off the dread of being totally useless. This fear is highlighted by the refrain "What do women do if they don't marry?" and the numerous jumble-sales which form a staple part of Pym's books are metaphors of the fate of her single women. Mildred is caught in a paradox where the only way she can be important within the context of her society is by being trivial; by busying herself, that is, with the menial tasks and the little concerns of those around her.

This paradox extends, however, to all Pym's heroines, married or not, for her excellent women at the beck and call of the male are but a mirror of all men-women relationships in the novels. These simultaneously feed on, and sustain, a myth of Man as a superior being whose needs, as Mildred's cleaning-lady well knows, must be met:

'Strong passions, isn't it', she muttered obscurely. 'Eating meat you how, it says that in the Bible.'

The frequent reiteration of man's infinite needs acquires the force of a liturgy intoned daily; the ubiquitous tea-drinking, for instance, becomes a ritual offering on the male altar, the validity of which Mildred at one point dares to question :

perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot [...]. I even said as much to (her) and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look. 'Do we need tea? she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. (EW 211)

Mildred's question is shaking the very foundations of the faith; serving men acts as a creed to cling to at all cost, in spite of constant evidence to the contrary. For most of Pym's men seem more in need of an excellent woman who will do their work for them than of meat and strong passions. And since Mildred's habit of observing the men is as ingrained as her capacity for serving them, she is in no doubt whatsoever as to their true worth. Excellent Women shows the dilemmas that arise when she succumbs to the pressures of lacking a man, and begins to entertain romantic thoughts for the glamorous but shallow (and married) Rockingham Napier.


When love is on the scene, the sense of lack Mildred previously experienced is but heightened, for the gap between myth and reality is intensified. It has been said that Pym's heroines have an unhappy propensity for unrequited love, (10) yet, in her fiction, there is a virtually total absence of male love, and Rockingham is merely the epitome of the inevitable failure of men-women relationships evident throughout. In this, the author is part of a swing amongst contemporary female writers "away from courtship, toward a fictional world where girl never meets boy (11)." For Mildred and Rocky never do meet; there is a constant disparity between her expectations and his very lack of them. Serving continues to be the heroine's only means of self-expression, for love, in Pym's world, can be shown in no other way. Mildred is therefore obliged to go through the same motions as before - in other words, to rely on the trivial details of the everyday - in order to convey what she feels. Her transformation from excellent to desiring woman (12) is, accordingly, charted with the same items as before; the serving of tea, in particular, becomes the symbol, both of her love, and of its absolute hopelessness. The distance between desire and its attainment is heralded when Mildred, scrabbling tea leaves out of her bucket, first hears Rocky's name: "Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin." Tea serves a metaphor of the difficulties inherent in loving, and of the well-nigh impossibility of communicating, for Pym's men and women live in different worlds where the very act of perception is sex-coded. (13) The trivial becomes a highly-charged act of love for Mildred, but since for Rocky the same act is divest of meaning, a sense of frustration inevitably ensues :

I could feel Rocky looking at me very intently. I raised my eyes to meet his.
'I was hoping...'
'what were you hoping?'
'That you might suggest making a cup of tea... That's one of the things I remember most about you.' (EW 206)


10. See, for example, Dominique Gauthier's "Les romans de Barbara Pym, ou: la vie quand-même." Lez Valenciennes 12. Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes, 1989. 85.
11. Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. The Women's Press Ltd, 1978. 232.
12. Foe a full discussion on this change see Cotsel, Michael, Barbara Pym. Macmillan, 1989. 47-56.
13. Se Anette Kolodny's essay, "A map for Re-reading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts." The New Feminist Criticism, 55.


The trivial functions, often with comic discrepancy, as both the highest and the lowest form of communication between men and women ; it constantly highlights, even as it attempts to bridge, the gap between a male and a female world. It is thus vital for Mildred to be trivial, failing which she would have to subside into silence or into an emotional void.. Trapped in the vicious circle of this serving-loving syndrome, hers is the dilemma of many of Pym's heroines in a fictional world where male love is non-existent. (14)

The portrayal of this dilemma constitutes a reversal of certain commonly-held assumptions, firstly in that the seemingly trivial is anything but for Mildred and nothing but for Rockingham, in whom it merely reveals a lack of inner life. His last words to her are "You will remember which pieces of furniture are to come, won't you?" for she is to supervise Rocky's removal from her life just as she watched his arrival into it ; from first to last Mildred is thus a witness of her own predicament. Secondly, male importance is deflated through the juxtaposition of the different values accorded to the trivial by men and women. Time and again, the pretensions of the male worlds of work and scholarship are sapped or ridiculed; visiting a civil servant at an unnamed Ministry, for example, Mildred notices crowds of "grey-looking men [...] hurrying in [...], they seemed to have double- barrelled names like Calverley-Hibbert and Radcliffe-Forde, but they did not look any the less grey for all that." Unceremoniously abandoned in a general stampede towards the tea-trolley, she idly wonders "whether important-sounding people like Calverley-Hibbert and Radcliffe-Forde were also at this moment hurrying along corridors with mugs." (EW 69-70) Similarly, the president of a Learned Society, pointed out to Mildred as "one of the more eminent persons present," appears to her as "a tall mild-looking old man with a white wispy beard, in which some crumbly fragments of meringue had lodged themselves. In his younger days he had apparently written some rather startling pamphlets about the nature of the universe." (EW 84) It is in conversational asides such as these that Barbara Pym inserts her comment on the world of men, having indeed discovered, as Virginia Woolf suspected any woman writer might, that she is "perpetually wishing to alter the established values - to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important (15)."


14. A. Kolony (58) interprets this inability to communicate as a "fictive rendering of the dilemma of the woman writer" who is misunderstood "in spite of the apparent sharing of a common language."
15. Woolf, Virginia. "Women and Fiction." Women and Writing. The Women's Press Ltd, 1979. 49.


In other words, just as it is important for Mildred to be trivial, so it is, in her eyes, for the males she observes to be important. For, since she tells her story in the first person, it is through her private observations that a "subversive subtext' (16) comes into being, frequently comic, but none the less corrosive for all that. This sub(-text, which functions as a minor key played insistently beneath the major, dominant, tune, not only undermines the male ego in the eyes of the reader, but converts Mildred's outward submission into a minor domestic rebellion. For example, at one point in the novel she rescues Rocky from a minor domestic crisis and surveys the disorder in his flat, feeling "very spinsterish indeed as I stood there, holding the burnt saucepan in my hand." Rocky himself confirms Mildred's own judgement of herself by responding thus :

'Oh, the saucepan," Rocky said, passing his hand over his brow with a gesture of weariness that seemed to me rather theatrical. "There have been other things to think about besides saucepans." (EW 142-143)

Mildred is thus chided for her trivial, womanly concern over a mere burnt pan, but gets her revenge via a critical observation which lays bare Rocky's pretensions, all the more so in that seconds later he informs her that his wife has left him, the "last straw" in their marriage having been a hot saucepan with which she ruined a favourite table of his. Again, at a parish meeting, Mildred, apparently compliant as she serves the men to refreshments, inwardly passes judgement on them :

[...] the churchwardens and [...] the treasurer looked up from their business, which they were conducting in a secret masculine way with many papers spread out before them, but made no move to help.(EW 211)

Here is a private protest made public through the medium of the novel, and operating at a level of a shared complicity between author, narrator and reader. As such, it serves to counterbalance the weight of the outer view of Mildred the spinster which is voiced throughout and which, without this inner view to offset it, would override the novel.


16. See Bowman, Barbara. "Barbara Pym's Subversive Subtext." Independent Women, edited by Janice Rossen. The Harvester Press Ltd, 1988. 82-94.


At the same time, this subtext enables the heroine simultaneously to give voice to and yet to deny her own desiring self. For Mildred's perception of Rocky as the archetypal seducer means that she despises herself for her attraction even as she is attracted. There is thus a reciprocal movement towards and away from him, again recorded via trivial details which undermine the validity of the very need for a man. The traditional outward trappings deemed necessary to lure one are devalued as when Mildred, choosing a lipstick in a department store is subjected to the assistant's scrutiny :

She looked at me blankly, as if no shade could really do anything for me. 'Jungle red is very popular - or Sea Coral' [...]
'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savouring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame. (EW 122)

Taking refuge in the Ladies' Room, she contemplates the gruesome spectacle of women preparing themselves for men :

All flesh is but as grass ... I thought, watching the women working at their faces with savage concentration opening their mouths wide, biting and licking their lips, stabbing at their noses and chins with powder-puffs. Some, who had abandoned the struggle to keep up, sat in chairs, their bodies slumped down, their hands resting on their parcels. One woman lay on a couch, her hat and shoes off, her eyes closed. I tiptoed past her with my penny in my hand.

Here, the man-hunt becomes a fight for survival which, through its morbid associations, is condemned. Mildred, however, condemns herself from the outset for succumbing to the call of the flesh; for if the quest for love is doomed to failure, desire remains. Her attraction to Everard Bone, after Rocky's departure, constitutes a farewell to romance; in its place, a meagre Bone is offered to the underdog. He is referred to as Mildred's "Lenten penance": the price to pay for earning the "dry bones" of "respect and esteem" that society bestows on the married woman. The winning of a man - if such it is, for the end of the novel is ambiguous - is merely yet another pressure on Mildred, and her future relationship with him is defined as such :

[...] before long I should be certain to find myself at this sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden ? Probably not but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after all. (EW 237)


Pym thus abandons the fictional convention of the happy ending. that "inevitable culmination of Charlotte Brontë's commitment to the legitimacy, the desirability of passionate love (17)"; indeed, from the start the reader is warned against expecting one, for Mildred stresses that she is "not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person."

On one level, Mildred's doing penance is a caricature of the spinster daring to desire and needing to be chastised for it. On another, however, it functions to create a dual focus within the novel, much as Mildred's inner voice does. From the outset, she continually emphasises her own dullness, be it drab appearance or dreary clothes. "I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt," is but one of dozens of similar comments on her part. Recurring as they do throughout the novel, they become both a stylistic device and a novelistic statement. On the one hand, attention is constantly and simultaneously drawn towards, and yet away from, Mildred; she is thus both the protagonist of the novel, and its apology, proclaiming her identity as heroine even as she disclaims her right to be qualified as such. And she is shadowed throughout by a silent understudy, Miss Jessop, a nonentity from whom nevertheless an apology is continually required. When Mildred meets her, she is surprised for "she did not look the kind of person who could possibly do anything for which an apology might be demanded. What had she done?." Miss Jessop symbolises the single woman who must apologise for her very existence; Mildred as she would have been without the medium of the novel in which to find a voice. On the other hand, this device serves as a mirror for the author's own style of writing; it is also Barbara Pym anticipating the critical reception of her work and ironically apologising for it in advance. For she was well aware that the "trivial round, the common task" would be considered an unworthy subject, but felt, as so many feminist critics would later, that the context of women's lives - "the serving circle rather than the whaling-ship, the nursery instead of the lawyer's office" - should be treated as "functional symbols of the human condition (18)." Her work therefore focuses obstinately on the little things of life, which become symbols of a female world, for Pym establishes her own hierarchy, deleting the supposedly important from her pages, retaining the so-called trivial,


17. Stubbs, 28.
18. Baym, Nina. Women's Fiction : A guide to Novels and About Women in America 1820-1870. NY : Ithaca, 1978, quoted by Kolony, 49.


and consequently allowing the female voice to be heard in its smallest and humblest modulations. This hierarchy, by highlighting the female sphere to the detriment of the male, becomes a subversive device. The trivial occupies the space on the page which Pym has deliberately allotted to it, and from which she has equally deliberately withheld other and, in the eyes of some, vital information. When Mildred, for instance, hears an office manager at work, she tells us :

a man was dictating a letter, weighting each word, or so it appeared, though the words that came to my ears through the open door seemed hardly worth such ponderous consideration.

The aforesaid words, deemed lacking in interest, are accordingly erased from the narrative, whereas the lines immediately following them minutely detail a domestic scene.

It is within this order of importance that the trivial comes to stand as a last retreat in the face of all the pressures incumbent on the heroine. Thus, Mildred, listening to the vicar clumsily expressing his regret that he did not fall in love with her, rather than with the far less suitable Mrs Gray, reverts to the commonplace items in her basket which, at least, do not make demands on her :

'Dear Mildred, it would have been a fine thing if it could have been.'
I pondered on the obscurity of this essence and gazed into my basket, which contained a packet of soap powder, a piece of cod, a pound of peas, a small wholemeal loaf and the Hawaiian Fire lipstick. (EW 125)

Typically, the heroine's actual feelings are not recorded; instead, an abundance of data is provided which carries their weight and acts as a protective shield behind which Mildred's privacy may remain intact. The Victorian image of the secret room, which, as Elaine Showalter has noted, symbolises a refuge from the male world, (19) is redefined in the most humdrum and mundane terms :

I began piling cups and saucers on to the tray. I suppose it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place than the kitchen sink, where neither of the men would follow me ?


19. Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own - British Women Novelists for Brontë to Lessing. Princeton University Press, 1977. 215.


This private retreat is the materialisation of Mildred's inner voice, the domain in which she can be herself :

[...] it occurred to me that if ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

The narrative which in fact surfaces is a witness to all the "unrecorded details of everyday life" whose absence in literature Woolf lamented :

all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed... Nothing remains of it all. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie. (20)

Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, then, makes amends for this absence by recording the details of an ordinary woman's everyday life, the seeming triviality of which constitutes a subtle reversal of established values. The emphasis on female rather than on male experience not only undermines the latter, but endows the heroine with a fictional power denied her by her environment. The supposedly insignificant is brought to the fore, and the current tendency amongst contemporary women authors to follow suit must surely be due in part to Pym's example. For, in showing the importance of being trivial, her novels offer a quiet but nonetheless effective feminist statement.


20. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Grafton, 1977. 97.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 0. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1992)