I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us - the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.
A shared bathroom, a newly brushed carpet, the funny little bags you get tea in abroad, a bombed-out church: Excellent Women depicts a world as distant as Pompeii. Manners are antique too: a celibate clergyman is no cause for speculation, a spinster may happily disclaim the slightest hint of experience, and everyone smokes. It's funny, of course, because it is Barbara Pym, but funny in a particular and hard-to-define way. Self-deprecating doesn't quite cut it. Irony? Mockery? A celebration of the trivial and the ridiculous? Her voice, so prized, is unmistakable.
'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've read Excellent Women before, possibly more than once; and I read it recently following a diagnosis for coronavirus and subsequent self-isolation. It seemed appropriately gentle and ascetic. Other options crossed my fevered mind: The Eustace Diamonds? The Antiquary?
I appreciated on this occasion Pym's reference to Lily Dale and Grace Crawley, 'who were both accustomed to churches and "almost as irreverent as though they were two curates"'. Perhaps The Small House at Allington or The Last Chronicle of Barset should be added to my little list.
I can report that I am now improving, but at a slow rate. I can report moments of Götterdämmerung and much longer periods of dull slog. It is for sure a bleak - one might almost say a Brooknerian - Christmas.