On Domestic Labor and Freedom in Excellent Women
V.V. Ganeshananthan Guests on the Lit Century Podcast
with Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, V.V. Ganeshananthan joins host Catherine Nichols to discuss Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women, a comedy of manners about an unmarried woman living in the very small world of 1950s Britain, and about the pleasures of independence—and of pettiness.
From the episode:
Catherine Newman: She also is very aware of how much work all the comforts of home are, and how that’s work someone’s doing, and that the price of competence, the price of being the person who is able to prepare dinner or cook the meat or make a nice cup of tea, whatever it is, the person who remembers to buy toilet paper, the price of being that person is that you’re not seen as romantic, you’re not seen as individual or lovable; you’re just seen as sort of an amenity for other people to absorb. I just thought it was a really interesting place for a book about the 1950s in Britain to position itself, when it seems like thinking about the British as heroic, both overseas and at home, was at a high ebb.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: That’s definitely true. I think your point about the comforts of home is really well taken. She does a remarkable job of putting a kind of labor on the page that is unglamorous and, frankly, I would find it as a writer a narrative challenged to make it interesting. And because it is occupied by Mildred’s thoughts and judgments—you know, she’s bending over a sink, cleaning up someone else’s mess. She’s making a cup of tea. And these things become a kind of refrain. And also they’re immediately undermined every time one appears.
V.V. Ganeshananthan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her novel, Love Marriage, was longlisted for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World’s best books of the year, and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. Her work has also appeared in Granta, The New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post, among many other publications.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.