The vicar and the excellent women

[Another post in my series on clergy in English fiction: this time, Excellent Women (1952) by Barbara Pym.]

Mildred Lathbury’s London is small and grey, ‘so very much the wrong side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia’ (ch.1). It is a constrained world, of rationed food that is bland when it comes, of shapeless and moth-eaten clothes retrieved from trestle tables in the church jumble sale. And, like some of Pym’s other novels, it is a world full of clergy. A young clergyman, a curate ‘just out of the egg’ looks out from a donated picture frame. In the bombed church of St Ermin, its vicar gamely conducts services in the one undamaged aisle, amid piles of wall tablets and the occasional cherub’s head. There is also a brief appearance by Archdeacon Hoccleve, a visiting preacher up from the country and Pym’s earlier novel Some Tame Gazelle.

And there are clergy in Mildred’s memory too, of her childhood in her father’s country rectory, ‘large, inconvenient … with stone passages, oil lamps and far too many rooms’. There are curates, whose names we do not learn, on whom Mildred had placed her teenage hopes without success; there was a visiting canon who knew much, and talked much, about Stonehenge. And there was her father, whose battered panama hat was the epitome of ‘the wisdom of an old country clergyman’. And Mildred now has made an existence for herself rather like that of her youth, with a small income and a flat full of her parents’ furniture with a shared bathroom. Aside from her work in the relief of distressed gentlewomen, that existence is centred around St Mary’s, ‘prickly, Victorian Gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me’. It is ‘High’, and it is with the vicar, with his biretta, that we are most concerned.

There are others much better placed than me to expound the subtle feminism in Pym’s work. But it seems clear to me that the moral centre of gravity of Excellent Women is female, around which the various male characters orbit. These men are casually dismissive of the women around them, but ultimately dependent on them in a way that is almost childlike. It is among this group of men – complacent, frivolous, ineffective – that we must read the vicar, Julian Malory, and it is largely through Mildred’s eyes that we see him.

Father Malory is not, Mildred thinks, a good looking man. Aged around forty, he is ‘tall, thin and angular’, which gives him ‘a suitable ascetic distinction’. But his manner is forbidding, such that only his smile serves to soften the ‘bleakness’ of his face. Not for him then the fluttering attention of the single women in the parish: ‘I am not even sure whether anyone has ever knitted him a scarf or a pullover.’ But the excellent women of St Mary’s are between them quite sure that, though he has not said as much, he is not for marrying. ‘Perhaps it is more suitable’, Mildred thinks, ‘that a High Church clergyman should remain unmarried, that there should be a biretta in the hall rather than a perambulator’ (ch. 2)

Malory is conventionally serious as his parishioners expect. Mildred is expected to ‘say a word’ to her new neighbours, the intellectual and worldly Napiers, and when she initially takes against Helena Napier, she is brought up short by the recollection of a sermon. But there is evidence too in Malory of a degree of introspection: when in chapter 5 we find him ineptly trying to paint a wall in the vicarage, his failure prompts the reflection that ‘it must be such a satisfying feeling, to do good work with one’s hands. I’m sure I’ve preached about it often enough.’ (Pym here captures an aspect in some of the more romanticised Anglo-Catholic theology of work at the time.) But even that satisfaction is to be denied him: ‘”I’ve certainly learnt humility this afternoon, so the exercise will have served some purpose. It looked so easy, too” he added sadly.’ ‘I suppose I am not to be considered a normal man’ he adds, ‘ and yet I do have these manly feelings.’

Image: Trojan_Llama via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

To say much more about the plot would risk spoiling the rich pleasures to be had from the novel by readers who do not yet know it. But it seems that Father Malory is, after all, the marrying kind, and it is in his handling of this, and of Mildred, that his culpable frivolity is clearest. Having lacked either the sensitivity to notice Mildred’s feelings for him before he reveals his engagement, he becomes guiltily solicitous for them at the precise time when he ought not to (ch.15). To compound the error, it is to her of all people that he returns when the plan collapses, and his clumsy attempt to return to a time in which their friendship had within it the unspoken potential of something more is gently sidestepped with a line of Keats (The wistful poetic clergyman is another familiar fictive type, and the use of verse as a substitute for saying what needs to be said) (ch. 22).

It is a measure of Pym’s art that this is not the only available reading; it might well be argued that, far from being particularly culpable, Malory is only as emotionally inarticulate as Mildred, and that their mutual discomfort is merely a product of culture. But he is direct to the point of embarrassment when attempting to save the marriage of someone else, or in the interest of his spinster sister, while vague to the point of irresponsibility on his own behalf. Pym gives us a character who has escaped the narrow fictive confines of his vocation, a well-intentioned but weak man in the company of excellent women.

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