In my weaker moments, I’m a sucker for the sort of girl’s girl recommendations that cluster around the women’s magazine world. What’s the best mascara according to Poppy Delevigne, how does Kirsty Alsopp ice a cake perfectly, what are Joanna Lumley’s style tips (hey, she’s still got it.) It’s trash, but it’s readable, and creates a cuddly, social atmosphere as if you’re gossipping over a cup of tea with the sort of girlfriend who cares about those sorts of things (none of my friends do, and honestly neither do I, which makes my interest in this tat all the more mysterious.)
Culture forms the respectable end of this flurry of recommendations (step up, Desert Islands Discs), so being in general a great fan of the journalism of India Knight I took her at her word at her top six favourite novels and purchased Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women on the assurance that it was an undervalued gem.
On the plus side, it was short.
Well, perhaps that’s cruel. Yes, it’s slight, it’s insubstantial, it has a heavy flirtation with being dull. Yes, it lacks the the brittle, flickering veneer of charm of Nancy Mitford (alongside which it is bizarrely often mentioned.) Like its worthy heroine, it dully plodded itself round a grey suburb of London wearing brown tweed and feeling apologetic. And yet it makes a sort of virtue out of these limitations. There’s a certain observational, put-yourself-down pleasure about it – a very British enjoyment of being the onlooker and the overlooked. The protagonist, thirty-something and unmarried in the late 1940s, is presumed to be one of life’s “excellent women,” committed to a lifetime of dull good deeds in the service of the local church, and unfulfilled pining for the vicar. While she puts up a vague mental fight, skewering the gentility with the odd keen inward comment, outwardly she goes along with this expectation, barely dreaming of a larger life aside from pale romantic whimsies.
Other readers have clearly found this whole shlock charming, finding light beauty and humour in the observation of the mundane. But I’m afraid to say I found it almost completely unmemorable. It’s a bad sign that I had real trouble deciding what category to put it in – it’s not psychological, family drama, cultural commentary, literary or popular fiction … when you interrogate it, it collapses under its own modest weight.
It’s not boring per se … OK, yes, perhaps it is.