The Big Pym-Re-Read: Excellent Women, Part 2

This post contains spoilers!

Archdeacon Horcleve
Gerard Manley Hopkins fits the bill for many of Pym’s vicars!

What is a Pym novel with no mention of the clergy?

Julian Mallory is the vicar of Mildred’s parish. He is about forty, ‘tall, thin and angular’; High Church (much to the dismay of some of his parishioners), and prefers to be referred to as ‘Father’.

Father Mallory lives with his unmarried sister, Winifred who is a close friend of Mildred’s. As he is single, it is assumed that he believes in the celibacy of the clergy. However, when the Mallorys rent out the upper floor of the vicarage to a widow called Allegra Gray, Julian Mallory eventually becomes engaged to her.

Mrs Gray tells Mildred about the engagement. She and Julian Mallory think that Mildred will be upset by the news because, of course, being unmarried and close to the Mallorys, it is assumed that she would want the vicar for herself. <<eyeroll>>

‘It’s so splendid of you to understand like this. I know it must have been a shock to you, though I dare say you weren’t entirely unprepared. Still, it must have been a shock, a blow almost, I might say,’ he laboured on, heavy and humourless, not at all like his usual self. Did love always make men like this? I wondered.

‘I was never in love with you, if that’s what you mean, I said, thinking it was time to be blunt. ‘I never expected that you would marry me.’

‘Dear Mildred,’ he smiled, ‘you are not the kind of person to expect things as your right even though they may be.’

The bell began to ring for Evensong. I saw Miss Enders and Miss Statham hurrying into church.

‘I’m sure you’ll be very happy,’ I said, my consciousness of the urgent bell and hurrying figures making me feel that the conversation should come to an end.

But Julian did not appear to be in any hurry to go.

‘Thank you, Mildred, it means a great deal to me, your good wishes, I should say. Allegra is a very sweet person and she has had a hard life.’;

I murmured that yes, I supposed she had.

‘The fatherless and widow,’ said Julian in what seemed a rather fatuous way.

‘Is she fatherless too?’

‘Yes, she is an orphan,’ he said solemnly.

‘Well, of course, a lot of people over thirty are orphans. I am myself,’ I said briskly. ‘In fact I was an orphan in my twenties. But I hope I shan’t ever be a widow. I’d better hurry up if I’m going to be even that.’

‘And I had better hurry into Evensong,’ said Julian, for the bell had now stopped. ‘Are you coming or do you feel it would upset you?’

‘Upset me?’ I saw that it was no use trying to convince Julian that I was not heartbroken at the news of his engagement. ‘No, I don’t think it will upset me.’ Perhaps the consciousness that I was already an orphan and not likely to be a widow was enough cause for melancholy, I thought, as I put my basket down on the pew beside me.

Later, Rocky Napier’s reaction to the news is as irritating:

‘Julian Malory is to marry Mrs. Gray.’

‘The fascinating widow whose hand he was holding in the park?’ asked Rocky. ‘Poor Mildred, this is a sad day for you.’

‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous!’ I said indignantly. ‘I didn’t care for him at all in that way. I never expected that he would marry me.’

‘But you may have hoped?’ said Rocky looking at me. ‘It would be a very natural thing, after all, and I should think you would make him a much better wife than that widow.’

Ugh, bless Mildred for being able to resist overturning her kitchen table in response.

Mildred would undoubtedly make an excellent vicar’s wife. As her father was a clergyman and she was practically trained for the task, but not all wives of clergy are the sort of capable, efficient type Mildred is. Allegra Gray, for instance, is beautiful in appearance, but a slatternly housekeeper. However, she is good at making others do things for her.

I am also thinking of Agatha Hoccleve, from Some Tame Gazelle, who is not considered sufficiently devoted to her her husband, the Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve’s domestic needs, although, being the daughter of a Bishop, she makes up for this by being socially well connected!

The Archdeacon makes a cameo in Excellent Women, as a guest preacher at St Ermin’s, a church that Mildred and a colleague (and, separately, Everard Bone) frequent for its special Lenten sermons:

He was an elderly man, certainly, but of a handsome and dignified appearance and his voice was strong and dramatic. His sermon too was equally unexpected. Hitherto the Lenten series had followed a more or less discernible course, but Archdeacon Hoccleve departed completely from the pattern by preaching about the Judgment Day. It was altogether a most peculiar sermon, full of long quotations from the more obscure English poets, and although the subject may in itself have been a suitable one for Lent, its matter and the manner of its delivery occasioned dismay and bewilderment rather than any more suitable feelings.

Dear Henry Hoccleve! One can’t help feel affectionate for this egoistical, pretentious chap because we see him through Belinda Bede’s eyes, and although she is far from blind to his faults, she helps us understand his better side too.

That is what Pym does so well, create characters who, like real people, are never wholly bad or good, lovable or hateful. Just when we are ready to write someone off, they reveal a sweet side to their personalities. Pym doesn’t just reserve this sort of full fleshing out for her protagonists. One of my favourite of Pym’s supporting characters whom she develops so carefully is William Caldicote.

William is the brother of Dora Caldicote, with whom Mildred once shared a flat. Before that, they attended the same boarding school.

I imagine William Caldicote looking like Philip Larkin,  who was a fan of Pym’s novels.

Mildred remarks that she and William were expected to marry. Dora and ‘perhaps even William himself’ had hoped so, but it turns out that William was not the kind of man to marry. Make of that what you will …

Mildred has lunch with William once a year and they have a friendly, although, in my opinion, not terribly warm relationship. William strikes one as the fussy, petty type, at times even malicious in his observations and remarks, but then we are shown that he can also be quite lovable. This is what Mildred sees when she visits his workplace, after lunch:

At that moment a clock struck a quarter past three. William jumped up, and
picking up a paper bag from one of the wire trays, walked over to the window
and flung it open. There was a whirring of wings and a crowd of pigeons
swooped down on to the flat piece of roof outside the window. Some hopped
up on to the sill and one even came into the room and perched on William’s
shoulder. He took two rolls from the paper bag and began to crumble them
and throw the pieces among the birds.

One of the grey men looked up from his card-index and gave me a faint, as
it were pitying, smile.

‘Does this happen every afternoon?’ I asked William.

‘Oh, yes, and every morning too. I couldn’t get through the day without my pigeons. I feel like one of those rather dreadful pictures of St. Francis—I’m sure you and Dora had one at school—but it’s a good feeling and one does so like to have that.’

I could not help smiling at the association of St. Francis with a civil servant, but I had not known about William’s fondness for pigeons and there was something unexpected and endearing about it. He seemed so completely absorbed in them, calling them by names, encouraging this one to come forward and telling that one not to be greedy, that I decided that he had forgotten all about me and it was time to go home.

William Caldicote feeding the pigeons never fails to make me smile. I also enjoy his sense of humour, for example when Mildred asks him about the building across the street from his office:

‘Is that another Ministry across there?’ I asked.

‘Ah, yes, the Ministry of Desire,’ said William solemnly.

I protested, laughing.

‘They always look so far away, so not-of-this-world, those wonderful people,’ he explained. ‘But perhaps we seem like that to them. They may call us the Ministry of Desire.’

So true that the lives we observe through windows often seem so much more fascinating than our own. I so loved watching men and women marking papers in lamp-filled living rooms when I walked the streets in Oxford. It was part of this romantic idea I had about

My romantic vision of Mildred and Everard, played by Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard (as, in Part 1, I’d pictured Amis as Everard).

being an academic. Now that I’ve taught undergraduates and marked their exam papers, I know the job is far from the ideal one I imagined then.

I’ve often wished that Pym had written another novel about Mildred, focusing on her life with Everard. However, just imagining this life might be better, like watching someone through their window and imagining whatever we wish about their lives. Getting too close would spoil our romantic fantasies about Mildred bringing total calm and order to Everard’s existence; and losing all her gentlewoman’s reservations while out in the field in Africa.


Next: Jane and Prudence



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