Excellent women. Unseen by many, especially men. Useful to many unencumbered as they are by families or love lives of their own. The rock of the church and less practical friends and acquaintances. The last of a dying breed of gentlewomen whose former societal value is quickly vanishing in a 1950s postwar culture where women occupy a different place in society. This could so easily have been a sad little book where the women of the title recede ever further into the background, but what I found was just the opposite. Mildred Lathbury, clergyman's daughter and spinster albeit only in her thirties, emerges quietly from unseen and pitiable to a far more perceptive analyst of those around her than those presumed to have mastered the paths to social success.
There are many rich examples of this gradual reveal of both understanding of a world to which Mildred does not belong and a reluctance to attempt to attach herself to anything beyond the limited life she has chosen to accept. But my favorite illustrations of these points occurs through the descriptions of Mildred's clothing especially in relation to the clothing of her more socially successful peers. When she meets her glamourous new neighbor, Mrs. Napier, Mildred judges a potential friendship improbable based upon appearance alone.
"We were, superficially at any rate, a very unlikely pair to become friendly. She was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt."
Mildred lives among women who attire themselves as she does, like her old school mate, Dora, and her friend, Winifred, the sister of the local clergyman who keeps house for her brother.
"She was dressed, as usual, in an odd assortment of clothes, most of which had belonged to other people. It was well known that Winifred got most of her wardrobe from the garments sent to the parish jumble sales, for such money as she had was never spent on herself but on Good - one could almost say Lost - Causes, in which she was an unselfish and tireless worker."
But there is always an awareness in Mildred that whomever she is, she is unique and not merely one of the many excellent women.
"I had to agree that it was lovely material, but the dress was so completely Lady Farmer that I should have hated to wear it myself and swamp whatever individuality I possess."
Contentment at being a mere observer of life lessens though as her infatuation with the handsome Rocky Napier grows.
"Then I went back to my flat and collected a great deal of washing to do. It was depressing the way the same old things turned up every week. Just the kind of underclothes a person like me might wear, I thought dejectedly, so there is no need to describe them."
When her old friend Dora comes for a visit, she notices that Mildred looks different.
"I suppose I had taken to using a little more make-up, my hair was more carefully arranged, my clothes a little less drab. I was hardly honest enough to admit even to myself that meeting the Napiers had made this difference and I certainly did not admit it to Dora."
This is immediately followed up by a shopping excursion during which Dora and Mildred become annoyed with one another when Dora insists on buying an ill-fitting dress in an unbecoming color simply because brown is a color that she has always worn. Mildred's suggestion of an everyday dress in green instead is met with a reaction of disbelief and an inquiry into whether or not Mildred has started reading popular fashion magazines. This visit concludes with Mildred's observations that her friend's undergarments are even drearier than hers, and then Mildred dreads her own reflection in the mirror as she heads to the rest room with her friend before she departs.
By novel's end, Mildred has found a comfortable place between the excellent women and her own conception of self. While acknowledging her own limitations, there are choices in her future over which she has control.
"My normal appearance is very ordinary and my clothes rather uninteresting, but the new dress I had bought showed an attempt, perhaps misguided, to make myself look different."
So she wears this black dress to meet a possible future, to meld what appears a sentence of excellent womanhood in post World War II culture with a reinterpretation of a limited life. This is an amusing and insightful novel charged with the keen observations of the quiet.
This novel was read for Pym Reading Week, in celebration of the author's 100th birthday.