So dreadful has been the news recently that, since lying awake nearly all night on November 8th listening to the news as the horror unfolded, I have hidden happily away from current affairs as best I can, absorbed in another, safer, world of books.
I have been reading – with great enjoyment – two very peaceful and charming books, as far removed from Trump (and even Brexit) as is remotely possible: ‘Excellent Women’ by Barbara Pym, and ‘Terms and Conditions’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham.
These two books came into my life quite separately, but most happily. Both are about girls/women, of a certain type and era.
Firstly, for our little Parwich book club I had chosen Barbara Pym’s ‘Excellent Women’, simply because I had read a review about Barbara Pym, until recently neglected and unappreciated, but increasingly recognised now as in fact a modern (mid 20c) Jane Austen, painting delightfully accurate and often amusing miniatures of mainly normal women and their preoccupations.
I have Lynne Hatwell, of Dovegreyreader, whose book reviews I admire enormously, to thank for the introduction to Terms and Conditions‘ – Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939 – 1979. She describes it far better than I can, but I shared her joy. I really loved this book, which as a boarding school girl myself, was very close to the heart and such fun to read.
Inevitably boarding school life was much closer to my own experience than the lives of Barbra Pym’s Excellent Women of the mid-war years, although these women are still instantly recognisable.
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women were young women by modern standards, but unmarried spinsters then, hopelessly on the shelf by the time they were 30. Poorly educated and socially restricted the only role in life open to them was to support charities and their church. Brought up to serve, to please and support, they become an invisible work force – taken completely for granted but almost accepting and enjoying their reputation as the dependable, essential, ‘excellent Women’ of the parish.
The flightily beautiful ones that are far from invisible get married and tend on the other hand to be totally hopeless and unreliable. Our school nuns would have been very critical and scathing of this group. St Peter’s girls were very definitely expected to belong to the excellent women brigade, hence our nun’s despair when we showed worrying signs of becoming less than doormats.
The boarding school ‘Excellent Women’ are much sparkier, but nonetheless ‘these women were not trained to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others…’. I can almost hear our nuns muttering despondently,’Well, we did try…’.
Obviously the boarding schools described varied enormously, and the one I went to was probably different again, being abroad. But so much was the same – the fun, the misery sometimes, the shared friendships that continue to this day. I just loved this book, and felt I was saying goodbye to a real friend when I came to the end.
I do recommend it.