There’s a scene in the late stages of Excellent Women, a 1952 novel by the mostly-unknown English writer Barbara Pym, which made me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a long time. In the scene, the heroine, Mildred Lathbury, is having tea with a friend from church, when she considers, and questions, the role of tea in British life:
Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.’
This little passage was particularly delightful because Carolyn and I had just been having a conversation about the British obsession with tea. She spent a semester in Scotland and could contribute more than I in the way of personal knowledge, and she agreed that among her Scottish companions tea was the answer for everything. Greeting a guest? Let’s have tea. Is the sun out? I’ll bring the tea out to the garden. Is it raining? Let’s cozy up with a nice cup of tea in the parlor. These impressions were bolstered by our limited experience with British literature, where tea was a dominant, abiding force. But why was this so? Regardless, Mildred Lathbury questioning the role of tea struck a nerve. The audacity! Of course there can never be too much making of cups of tea. After all, one needs tea always, at every hour of the day or night.
Drinking tea every afternoon (and whenever one is in a spot of trouble); listening to the Orioles on a warm spring night; eating ice cream when one is dispirited—these little and ordinary things (and others like them) make up our lives. Along with the big things—being with, or searching for, the people we love; learning to love our God—these things may well be what keep us sane.
A week or two ago, after finishing Pym’s wonderful story, I picked up another novel which had been sitting on our coffee table for weeks. (Carolyn had started it but it ‘didn’t grab her,’ so the beat-up paperback, which we’d bought for a quarter at a rummage sale, had languished there, bookmarked at page 38, since Valentine’s Day.) It was a novel written by the American Michael Chabon, called Wonder Boys.
As I began to read Wonder Boys, I quickly discerned that the two stories could hardly be more different. Whereas nothing notable happens in Excellent Women (the plot consists of Mildred going to and from work or church, meeting friends and neighbors, going out to lunch or dinner with those friends and neighbors–and, naturally, drinking tea all the while), within the first 150 pages of Wonder Boys a whole glittering drama had unfolded. The protagonist, a chubby 41-year-old pothead writer living in Pittsburgh, is suffering a sort of collapse. His wife (his third wife) leaves him; his libertine literary agent seduces a transvestite at a cocktail party; his writing student, after contemplating suicide, murders the school chancellor’s dog; numerous drugs and liquors are consumed in a variety of contexts by virtually all of the main characters; and a theory of writing is established and expounded upon (it’s called the “midnight disease”). There’s a warmth to the story–Chabon clearly likes his characters–but the outlandish theatrics subsume it at nearly every turn.
The world of Wonder Boys is crazy and surreal. There are hints of real human attachment—when the main character visits his soon-to-be-ex’s family, for instance. But on the whole, it comes off like a farce, a melodrama of almost ridiculous proportions. Chabon’s a good stylist, and his prose flows easily, and (as I noted above) plenty happens to keep the reader occupied. But reading Wonder Boys is like reading a cartoon. The garish details are titillating but there isn’t much at stake. Not much that’s recognizable, in any case.
Excellent Women and Pym’s other stories are nowhere near as “dramatic” as a story like Wonder Boys. So it’s small wonder, perhaps, that her stories went out of print for a period in the 1960s and ‘70s. There wasn’t much of a clamor in support of Pym. But one devotee of her work, Philip Larkin, did his best to bring her back into the light. In a letter of protest to her publisher, he wrote in defense of “ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things.” He continued:
“I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful and lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in the little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called ‘big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour.”
I guess you can look for entertainment in your reading, or you can look for truth. The two are not mutually exclusive, and I’m not completely immune to the charms of Wonder Boys (which was hard to put down). But one can’t help being struck by the differences between Excellent Women and Wonder Boys, in light of Larkin’s letter. Reading about Chabon’s protagonist—a lurid, debaucherous man who spends most of his time fleeing sobriety, who impregnates his mistress and steals Marilyne Monroe relics, who pats himself on the back for not seducing 20-year-old students, who accidentally kills old dogs—I’m left with thinking that Larkin would not speak up for him. Whereas Mildred Lathbury is living a life that is recognizable—a life defined by daily meals and annoying neighbors and condescending friends—and, yes, by love. She is closer to us, and we should admire her the more for it.
Wonder Boys is entertainment, and there’s a place for it. Excellent Women, on the other hand, is, like tea in Britain, something more “deep and fundamental.”