Excellent Women Marry?
by Eileen Kennedy
Unlike the other novels we are looking at today, Excellent Women presents views of marriage through a first-person narrator. Mildred Lathbury, a “spinster” at the ripe old age of thirty, gives much thought to this institution in which she has never partaken, and to which she has not had a great deal of exposure. As Diana Benet points out in Something to Love, “her set…consists of women, older men and young boys…” But because Mildred has been so little tainted by the realities of marriage, she is free to conceptualize and define her ideas without worrying about the actualities of burnt saucepans and demanding careers. And when she does witness a marriage first-hand, it is as a third party; her views are not influenced by the very real existence of a spouse.
Women is set in the London Parish of St. Mary’s, where Mildred’s
circle involves a close friendship with Father Mallory, the parish’s
vicar. Two events disturb Mildred’s
placid, if somewhat predictable, existence.
First, an unusual married couple, Rockingham (Rocky) and Helena
rents the flat below Mildred’s. Their
marriage is unconventional: Rocky attends to things domestic – the
housekeeping – while
Mildred is a self-described “excellent woman.” She is “involved or interested in other people’s business.” She is “capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life.” Most important, she will do so while “expecting very little, nothing, really” for herself. Hers is a life of observation, not of action: “Perhaps I really enjoyed other people’s lives more than my own,” she says. The implication is that excellent women do not marry. Her chum Dora’s brother William, a confirmed bachelor, tells her over lunch, “I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, an excellent woman. I do hope you’re not thinking of getting married?” “Oh, no, of course not!” she says, for she believes that “it was not the excellent women who got married.” The Napiers’ marriage and the vicar’s failed engagement influence the evolution of Mildred’s self-perception from that of an excellent woman who will never marry, to that of a woman who very well might.
As she perks up her appearance, men start to notice her and she attracts the attention of Julian Mallory and Everard Bone. Both begin to see her as a potential wife. We see Mildred transformed: although she was once satisfied to reminiscence about a failed youthful romance, believing that “love was rather a terrible thing…not perhaps my cup of tea,” by the end of the novel she’s entertaining thoughts of marrying Everard Bone. But do her ideas about marriage also evolve? Can excellent women marry? These two questions are resolved simultaneously.
Mildred holds a fairly
traditional idea of marriage. When
Napiers appear to have very
little in common. They “met at a party
during the war and fell in love in the silly romantic way people did
then.” Now that the international drama
has passed, these differences are not so endearing.
In fact, before Rocky even appears on the scene,
immediately upon meeting
Rocky, Mildred senses that he is the type who would appeal, and be
to the opposite sex, regardless of his marital status.
These suspicions are confirmed on the train
returning from her school reunion; Mildred meets a Wren officer who
herself is no angel. While it’s unclear
whether she knows the full
extent of Rocky’s dalliances,
Napiers’ relationship does not
seem to espouse any of the values traditionally associated with
marriage. This is certainly a marriage of
equals, but instead
of each bringing something of moral, psychological or economic value to
relationship, both husband and wife are equally capable of engaging in
infidelities, and neither seems willing to back down in the course of
many fights and squabbles. This is
a marriage where the roles have been reversed.
Rocky is the stay-at-home cook, concerned with domestic
Perfect timing for Everard Bone. Even early on, Mildred observed that, “There was certainly nothing romantic about him, but was he perhaps just a little splendid?” Although she saw his virtues, she thought at first that he was not the kind who would appeal to an excellent woman: “His rather forbidding manner would be useful to him. I realized that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.” But then she accepts Everard’s off-hand and impromptu invitation to lunch. Until this point she has flirted with the idea of change only in a superficial manner: a new hat, new lipstick, more make-up, hair carefully arranged, a more colorful wardrobe. During their lunch conversation, the change begins to permeate her thinking. Everard has noted that Mildred is a “sensible person.” A short time later, when she asks him what his ideal wife would be like, he responds, “Oh, a sensible sort of person.” “Somebody who would help you in your work?” Mildred suggests. “Somebody with a knowledge of anthropology who could correct proofs and make an index?” Mildred has been referring to Everard’s colleague. He responds that she “is certainly a very capable person. An excellent woman altogether.” Mildred jumps on this. “You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” she asks in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.” “Poor things,” Everard says, “aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?” “Oh yes,” Mildred replies, “but nothing can be done about them.” She still resists the idea, but the seed of a notion has been planted.
to consider that perhaps
she is the marrying kind after all, Mildred meets her first opportunity
Julian Mallory’s engagement is broken off.
On the rebound, Julian makes oblique overtures towards Mildred,
the waters, and Mildred considers that it might possibly now be her
marry Julian. But the problem of
dullness cannot be surmounted: “Somehow
morning had not brought any more enthusiasm than the night before. Of course I liked and admired him, perhaps I
even respected and esteemed him…But was that enough?”
Mildred has been excited by Rocky, and this
excitement has made the dullness of other men all the more unbearable. After Rocky reconciled with
As Mildred begins to settle her affection on Everard, she realizes that she is willing to accept the wifely duties that go with it. She will prepare his meat after all. She purchases a black dress and sweeps her hair back in preparation for their dinner date, “trying to make myself look like the kind of person who could not correct proofs or make an index.” She is disguising herself; clearly, she still does not quite believe that an excellent woman is marriageable. But later that evening she does agree to assist him by reading his proofs and preparing the index for his book. She has sensed something in Everard that allows her to remain an excellent woman.
Though even now she is not without ambivalence. She thinks to herself that, “before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up… 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.” The burden might be lightened by the circumstances, and Mildred has found the circumstances that are agreeable to her – an intellectual engagement with her husband’s work. She is therefore willing to accept the less edifying obligation of the household. In the end, Mildred maintains her sense of duty as an excellent woman, but is now able to transfer that duty to those of a wife. Excellent women can, indeed, marry.