Nicola here. A fairly brief blog from me today as I’m struggling towards the end of the current manuscript and am chained to it until it’s done! A few weeks ago, when I was still allowed out, I went to a talk at a local bookshop about a new book by a local author, Gill Hornby. The book is called Miss Austen and it is a fictional look at the life of the lesser-known Austen sister, Cassandra. In particular it tackles the literary mystery of why Cassandra destroyed so many of Jane Austen’s letters. Gill gave a fascinating interview into the background and research she did for the book and gave us her view on both Jane and Cassandra’s characters. She came across, as the interviewer noted, as quite protective of Cassandra; Gill said that this was because Jane is always – rightly – lauded as a genius, but Cassandra was an unsung heroine. In her words, Cassandra was an “excellent woman.”
Barbara Pym wrote a book with the title Excellent Women in the 1950s. The title – and the main character Mildred Lathbury – were recognisable and understandable to everyone; a woman who is so often taken for granted, who is quietly capable of dealing with everything from a major life crisis to a garden party that is rained off. An excellent woman dispenses tea, sympathy and bracing common sense advice. She is often overlooked and not thanked as much as she should be. Often the excellent women have been called that by men because they are enablers who allow the men in the story to lead the life they want by unobtrusively dealing with any problems that get in the way. In Cassandra Austen’s case she was the person who enabled Jane to write by running their household, planning meals, managing the servants, caring for their mother. Everyone thought she was a good sort; in her letters she notes with only the slightest hint of reproach that when her mother was dying her brothers did not come to visit or help out, though she knew they would if she had asked them. The boys thought she could cope and of course she could, so they let her get on with it. It was easier.
Often "excellent women" were spinsters,sometimes the "surplus women" resulting from wars whether that was in the Napoleonic period or the early twentieth century. These indispensable historical women, who sometimes traded board and lodging to act as unpaid servants or companions, were the ones who were felt to have the spare time to look after other people's children or help run a household because they had no family of their own. It wasn't only single women who were these under-appreciated angels however; a married woman who was capable but unobtrusive was considered equally excellent.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the original mention of an excellent woman in the bible stated that “her worth is far more than precious jewels.” She shouldn’t be undervalued or taken for granted because if she stopped doing all the things she does so efficiently, the world would grind to a halt. When I was a university administrator, I remember someone saying that the best sort of administration was the one nobody noticed because it was silent but effective, enabling the academics to do their job. We certainly got taken for granted in my day! Perhaps that’s changed, or perhaps not. I imagine we all know someone who is an “excellent woman” and these days a number of “excellent men” who quietly and efficiently enable other people to get on with what they are doing. Perhaps we should remember to thank them and appreciate them more because they are multi-talented. As Gill Hornby said, without Cassandra, there would have been no Jane Austen in the shape and form we have her.
I also think that tea and excellent women go together. I can just imagine Cassandra unobtrusively organising refreshments for visitors whilst Jane entertains them with her dazzling wit. And of course the other thing about excellent people is that often they are as clever and sharp-witted as their more dashing fellows, they are just quieter about it, and good observers too.
From Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym:
“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.”
Do you know any “excellent people” either in history, fiction or in real life? I’m giving a shout out here to people who empower others in a positive way to get things done! My favourite fictional excellent person is another Cassandra, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, who is so practical compared to her beautiful sister Rose, is in danger of being overlooked, but is a sharp observer, and funny and clever, the sort of person I’d want as a friend!