Emotionally Muted Meals In Barbara Pym's "Excellent Women," In Order Of Sexlessness

No one could describe the feelings brought on by the sight of a sink full of dirty dishes like Barbara Pym; I have dedicated a solid quarter of my post-Toast career attempting to do the same and failing (Is this why Philip Larkin was always so sad? I wonder). Excellent Women has more dispiriting, libido-draining meals per capita than many another midcentury book, and for that reason it will always have my lifelong devotion. Read them and then go lie down for a while.

Tempered-Wine And Met Expectations

It turned out to be a very nice bird and I am sure that even William’s could not have been better. The red wine was perfectly chambré and our conversation improved quite noticeably, so that by the time we were sitting drinking coffee by the purring gas-fire the atmosphere between us was a pleasant and cosy one.

Salad and Middle-Class-Shame-Brandy

“I washed a lettuce and dressed it with a little of my hoarded olive oil and some salt. I also had a Camembert cheese, a fresh loaf and a bowl of greengages for dessert. It seemed an idyllic sort of meal that ought to have been eaten in the open air, with a bottle of wine and what is known as ‘good’ conversation. I thought it unlikely that I should be able to provide either the conversation or the wine, but I remembered that I had a bottle of brandy which I kept, according to old-fashioned custom, for ‘emergencies’ and I decided to bring it in with the coffee. I could see my mother, her lips slightly pursed, saying, ‘For medicinal purposes only, of course…’ But now respectable elderly women do not need to excuse themselves for buying brandy or even gin, though it is quite likely that some still do and perhaps one may hope that they always will.”

Real Womanhood, Mocked By Alcohol

“After I had seen the van go away I went upstairs to my flat to eat a melancholy lunch. A dried-up scrap of cheese, a few lettuce leaves for which I could not be bothered to make any dressing, a tomato and a piece of bread-and-butter, followed by a cup of coffee made with coffee essence. A real woman’s meal, I thought, with no suggestion of brandy afterwards, even though there was still a drop left in the bottle. Alcohol would have made it even more of a mockery.”

Female-Specific Gratitude, Extravagant Egg-Scrambling, Followed By A Nap Approximation

“I made myself what seemed an extravagant lunch of two scrambled eggs, preceded by the remains of some soup and followed by cheese, biscuits and an apple. I was glad that I wasn’t a man, or the kind of man who looked upon a meal alone as a good opportunity to cook a small plover, though I should have been glad enough to have somebody else cook it for me. After I had washed up I went gratefully to my bed and lay under the eiderdown with a hot-water-bottle.”

Bird Maximalization

“‘I eat as many birds as possible,’ said Mrs. Bone when we were sitting down to roast chicken. ‘I have them sent from Harrods or Fortnum’s, and sometimes I go and look at them in the cold meats department. They do them up very prettily with aspic jelly and decorations.’”

It Is Right That I Am Alone With My Chop Contemplating Small Quantities of Splendidness

“I crept quietly up to my flat and began to prepare supper. The house seemed to be empty. Saturday night…perhaps it was right that it should be and I sitting alone eating a very small chop. After I had washed up I would listen to Saturday Night Theatre and do my knitting. I wondered where the Napiers were, if they were out together, or if Helena was with Everard Bone...I began to laugh, bending over the frying-pan. There was certainly nothing romantic about him, but was he perhaps just a little splendid?”

Unfamiliar Eggs, Unfamiliar Questions

“After she had gone I boiled myself a foreign egg for lunch and was just making some coffee when there was a knock on the kitchen door. It was Mrs. Napier.

‘I’ve come to ask something rather awkward,’ she said, smiling.”

Discouragement and Insufficient Cheese

“Mrs. Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard. Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese.”

The Death Of Love, Strangled By Spaghetti

“When the first course came, it turned out to be spaghetti of a particularly long and rubbery kind. Rocky showed me how to twist it round my fork but I found it very difficult to manage and it made conversation quite impossible. Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?”

Housework In Disguise

“‘I rang up to ask if you would come and have dinner with me in my flat this evening. I have got some meat to cook.’

I saw myself putting a small joint into the oven and preparing vegetables. I could feel my aching back bending over the sink. ‘I’m afraid I can’t tonight,’ I said baldly.

Beans and Why Bother

“I went into the kitchen and busied myself making more coffee. ‘I hope you’ve had your meal?’ he said, coming in and watching me. ‘I’ve arrived at rather an awkward time.’ I explained that I had just finished supper and added that I found it rather a bother cooking just for myself.

‘I like food,’ I said, ‘but I suppose on the whole women don’t make such a business of living as men do.’ I thought of my half-used tin of baked beans; no doubt I should be seeing that again tomorrow.

‘No, and women don’t really appreciate wine either. I suppose you wouldn’t dream of drinking a bottle of wine by yourself, would you?’

‘Of course not,’ I said, rather primly, I am afraid.”

Fish Rejection

“After the service I went home and cooked my fish. Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish. I began trying to imagine what it would have been like if Julian had wanted to marry me and was absorbed in these speculations when there was a knock at the door and Rocky came in.”

Memories of Fictional Ham, Followed By Fruit Salad

“We drank our sherry and made rather stilted conversation about parish matters. When the food came Mrs. Gray ate very little, pushing it round her plate with her fork and then leaving it, which made me feel brutish, for I was hungry and had eaten everything. ‘I’m like the young ladies in Crome Yellow,’ she said, ‘although it isn’t so easy nowadays to go home and eat an enormous meal secretly. What was it they had? A huge ham, I know, but I don’t remember the other things.’ I did not really know what she was talking about and could only ask if she would like to order something else. ‘Oh, no, I’m afraid I have a very small appetite naturally. And then things haven’t been too easy, you know.’ She looked at me with a penetrating gaze that seemed to invite confidences. It made me feel stiff and awkward as if I wanted to withdraw into my shell. But I felt that I had to say something, though I could produce nothing better than ‘No, I suppose they haven’t.’ At that moment the waiter came with some fruit salad.”

Sandwichlessness, Speechlessness, Suspiciousness…ness

“I fussed over the weak tea, regretted that I had not bought another cake or some tomatoes or a cucumber to make sandwiches, wished passionately that I had been a more brilliant conversationalist. As it was, Rocky had now lapsed into silence and Julian was looking around him with frightened, suspicious glances.”

Hell’s Cafeteria And The Impossibility Of Love For Humanity

“Our trays rattled along on a moving belt at a terrifying speed, so that at the end of it all I found myself, bewildered and resentful, holding a tray full of things I would never have chosen had I had time to think about it, and without a saucer for my coffee. Mrs. Bonner, Bonner, who always came to such places, had done much better and began explaining to me where I had gone wrong. ‘You get the saucer after you’ve taken a roll, if you have one. I generally don’t as we are told not to waste bread, and before you get the hot dish,’ she said, as we stood with our trays looking for two vacant places.

‘Oh, that must be where I went wrong,’ I said, looking down at the bullet-hard roll which I was sure I was going to waste. ‘I think one ought to be allowed a trial run-through first, a sort of dress rehearsal.’

We settled ourselves and our food at the table and I paused for a moment to draw breath before eating. The room was enormous, like something in a nightmare, one could hardly see from one end of it to the other, and as far as the eye could see was dotted with tables which were all full. In addition, a file of people moved in through a door at one end and formed a long line, fenced off from the main part of the room by a brass rail.

‘Time like an ever-rolling stream

Bears all its sons away…’ I said, more to myself than to Mrs. Bonner. ‘This place gives me a hopeless kind of feeling.’

‘Oh, it’s quite cheap and the food isn’t bad if you don’t come here too often,’ she said, cheerfully down-to-earth as always. ‘It’s useful if you’re in a hurry.’

‘One wouldn’t believe there could be so many people,’ I said, ‘and one must love them all.’”