OK, I’m cheating a little here, as my copy of this book is *not* the Virago edition, but a nice, pre-loved old hardback kindly passed on to me by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book! However, I’m still counting it for the LibraryThing Virago Group’s centenary read-along – so there!


I sailed through Pym’s first book, “Some Tame Gazelle” and liked it very much, but for some reason it took me a little while to get going with EM. We are in similar territory to STG, in that our narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a 30-something, single, churchgoing excellent woman of independent means, who spends much of her time doing good works and sorting out other people’s lives and problems. Her part-time job is helping distressed gentlefolk (not a job title that would be around much nowadays!) and her spare time is devoted to her friends Fr. Julian Malory and his sister Winifred. Mildred also has an old school friend/ex flatmate Dodie, whose brother William was once a possible suitor. But Mildred seems set in her ways and resigned to a life of solitude and good works, until a new couple move into the flat below. Rockingham and Helena Napier are people out of Mildred’s usual sphere and cause instant disruption. Add into this Helena’s anthropologist colleague Everard Bone, and the new lodger at the Rectory, widow Allegra Gray – well, you end up with poor Mildred being taken very much out of her comfort zone!

“Love was rather a terrible thing, I decided next morning, remembering the undercurrents of the evening before. Not perhaps my cup of tea.”

Pym’s writing here is just as sparkling as in her first novel. Her dry wit is lovely, and she has plenty of sly digs at all of the religions and types that Mildred comes across. The setting is different from STG – instead of a rural parish, we are in a city parish, albeit a small local one. The fact that this is post-WW2 is clear from the references to bomb-damaged churches etc, and Rocky Napier has just returned from service in Italy. Rationing is still going on and there is a sense of a world that has been very disrupted and is still not back to normal. There is a lovely array of characters, beautifully drawn, but this novel is somehow a little more melancholy than STG. In the first novel, despite the upheavals that take place, the characters are not too troubled by doubts and all settles back down to normal. But in EM, there seems to be much more questioning of women’s roles and lot in life. Mildred is clear-headed enough to know that she does not love either Rocky or Julian (whom she entertains slight fancies about, then rejects). She is still young enough for many of the characters to assume that she will marry and settle down, but she values her independence and solitude and does not seem to want to make such a sacrifice. One of the characters comments that it is not natural for women to live on their own, and Allegra Grey speculates about what happens to women if they don’t marry:

“Oh, they stay at home with an aged parent and do the flowers, or they used to, but now perhaps they have jobs and careers and live in bed-sitting-rooms or hostels. And then of course they become indispensable in the parish and some of them even go into religious communities.”

There were so many lovely touches – I was particularly fond of the jumble sale chapter which brought back many memories! In the 1980s I haunted many such gatherings as they were a source of all things vintage and individual and quirky, and I well remember the aggression of some of the attendees as we struggled for the best bargain… Pym’s characters are very pragmatic and down to earth – Mildred seems realistic about what she expects from life, and after going through the emotional wringer over love when she was younger, does not seem to want to go through it again. It was lovely to see Archdeacon Hoccleve make a cameo and I wondered if when Pym said this about another character, she was thinking of him:

“I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced”

And yet – I found more ambiguities in EW, besides just the ironic use of the phrase. Pym doesn’t seem to be quite decided as to whether it is a good thing that these women are unattached and with a certain purposelessness. It isn’t just the women, either – William, with his fussiness and his pigeons and his greyness in his grey office with grey colleagues, is ultimately a sad figure and I ended up a little unclear as to whether Pym thought everyone should pair off or not. Certainly any marriage between William and Mildred would have been dreadful, but Pym doesn’t seem to be offering much of an alternative. Things are no clearer with the arrival of Mildred’s new neighbours, another pair but this time two ageing ex-governesses. They are very “jolly hockey sticks” and hearty and one wonders whether Pym was hinting at another solution to female solitude here.

Another aspect I noticed more in EW was the fact that Pym and her characters seemed less satisfied with the usual assumptions of the period i.e that the women would cook and make the tea etc while the men sat around and talked and made decisions. This was only an undercurrent, but in some ways I rather wanted Pym to develop this a little more – maybe she will in future books!


But the biggest ambiguity for me was the ending. Mildred is single – Julian Malory has been deserted by Allegra Gray and Everard Bone has escaped from the clutches of Helena. While dining with Everard and considering his suggestion she works on his book, Mildred also considers that she may have to defend Julian from future bands of excellent women. Is she actually considering taking either of them on full-time, because she thinks of herself in comparison to the late President of the Anthropological Society’s wife, which could mean she might actually marry Everard (she certainly finds him attractive!) I’m not sure this lack of clarity actually worked for me, as I would have preferred to know if Mildred was going to resist all attempts to pair her off, or give in to matrimony.

If this sounds too critical, it isn’t meant to be – I enjoyed EW very, very much and I love Pym’s wit and way of writing. I just would have preferred her to take a little more of a definite line on things, but this is maybe a trait that will develop in her writing as I read through her books – looking forward to next month’s volume!