Saturday, January 29, 2011

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women
by Barbara Pym, 1952
published by Plume
256 pages

source: my shelves

motivation for reading: Virago Reading Week and The TBR Dare

In a nutshell:
Mildred Lathbury, clergyman's daughter, thirty-something spinster in 1950's England, and 'excellent woman' often taken for granted, finds herself in the middle of her new neighbors marital crisis, as well as a church upheaval.

My thoughts:
The front cover says "Written with the wit and style if a twentieth-century Jane Austen" and I can't help but agree.  Excellent Women, told in the first person by Mildred Lathbury, seems to suggest this comparison from the opening page:
"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who loves alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say there is no hope for her."
Quartet in Autumn is my only previous experience with Pym, but I was again treated to a wonderfully English-feeling novel. The effects of the war are still visible - a badly bombed church is only half-usable, housing shortages remain and (hard for me to imagine from my 21st century comfort) total strangers are required to share bathrooms.  Meat supply seems scarce and tea-drinking occurs every few pages.

Mildred is an extremely perceptive woman, and much of her life is based on appropriateness, capability, and manners. It's a rather quiet life caring for 'gentlewomen' in the morning, attending various church services, and taking part in nearly all day-to-day church activities. Life takes an interesting turn as Mildred becomes involved in the lives, and marital crisis, of her glamorous new neighbors, the Napiers. Helena is a  beautiful anthropologist lacking domestic skills, while Rockingham, or 'Rocky',  is a handsome, engaging officer recently returned from Italy. Through the Napiers, Mildred is also introduced to the unmarried Everard Bone, Helen's research partner.

Church life is shaken up when Allegra Gray, a stylish clergyman's widow, takes a room at the vicarage where (single) Father Julian Malory presides while being looked after by his sister Winifred (also an 'excellent' woman). Mildred's character unfolds as she interacts with all these people.

Although there are some very funny moments, the poignant episodes seemed to stand out, leaving me with a overall bittersweet feeling.

A few examples:
'You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish' I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.  (page 44)
On the bus I began thinking that William had been right and I was annoyed to have to admit it. Mimosa did lose its freshness to quick to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people's. (page 76)
It was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up. 'I can't change now. I'm afraid it's too late.' I felt it would not sound very convincing if I said that I hadn't really wanted to marry Julian Malory. I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.  (page 170)
So did he remember me like that after all - a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one. (page 222)
After turning the last page, I wanted nothing more than to begin another Barbara Pym novel.

My rating:

Bottom line: A wonderfully perceptive English novel by an author I will be reading much more of... especially recommended to those who enjoy quiet, character-driven novels.

Virago Reading Week is hosted by Rachel and Carolyn.


  1. This is a favorite of mine, although it's been at least 15 years since I last read it. I think it might be time to revisit. All Pym's books are very fine, and I remember feeling a little sad when I had finished the last one.

  2. Oh I am so glad you enjoyed Excellent Women. Just this morning I commented on A Few of My Favourite Books blog that Pym is just the thing for a cosy read as Carolyn is feeling poorly.

    I brew up three pots of tea a day so I'm afraid my legacy will also be as a tea granny!

  3. This sounds like the perfect read for a rainy Sunday afternoon. It's gone on my wishlist.

  4. A lovely review, JoAnn; you really capture the reader's feeling of living in Pym's world. What a treat to see her work still read.

  5. We still drink as much tea today in England. I am sure I was born with a teabag in my hand! Love truly British books.

  6. Fantastic. I need to read more Pym. Her novels all seem to have that rather bittersweet tone but the stoic nature of her characters makes the depressingness bearable I think.

  7. I'm really intrigued by your past few posts of this author and now I feel I must educate myself by reading her!! My library happens to have quite a few by her..I'm going to put a hold on Excellent Women and read it in April!!

  8. I went on a Pym binge last year and read a few of her books in succession. Some of them had a rather sad undertone, I thought, but I did enjoy them. I tracked down a copy of Pym's autobiography, "A Very Private Eye", but have not read it yet.

  9. I'm doing a happy dance here - I found Pym's Jane and Prudence for 10p(!) yesterday, and your review makes it feel like even more of a treasure.

  10. I have yet to read a work by Barbara Pym-I will be on the lookout for one of her books-I enjoyed your post a lot

  11. I am a broken record: I loved Barbara Pym when I read them all in the early 80s. Like T&C Mom -- I was so sad to have finished them.

  12. With such an excellent review, JoAnn, I absolutely must put Barbara Pym on my must read list!

  13. I'm so glad you loved it too as it was my first Pym and first Virago of the week. She is definately an author I'll continue to read.

  14. I have never read anything by Barbara Pym, but this book sounds wonderful! I've enjoyed reading all the Virago Week posts, because they've brought to my attention many books I'd otherwise miss. I'm adding this one to my list right away.

  15. Town and Country Mom - This is only my second Pym, but I'm looking forward to making my way through everything she's written.

    Darlene - I visited two bookstores over the weekend and only found one copy of Excellent Women. No doubt I'll be able to find many titles more in London!

    Sam - It is! I hope you get to read it soon.

    Lynne - Can't wait to read more of her work. I just wish her novels were more widely available here.

    Vivienne - I can't seem to get enough of these truly British books lately... just love them!

    Rachel - Quartet in Autumn had even more of a bittersweet feel to it - left me feeling quite sad as I remember. Excellent Women was much better!

    Staci - Will be curious to see what you think of Pym. This is one of the most British novels I've read in quite some time.

  16. Violet - You can be certain there will be a Pym binge in my near future! Quartet in Autumn left me with a very sad feeling when I read it a few years ago, as I recall. Did not realize she had an autobiography... will be an eye out for that, too.

    Nymeth - Lucky you! I'm hoping Jane and Prudence will be next for me... we'll see what I find in London.

    Mel U - Hope you can find some of her novels. You can be sure I'll be on the lookout for more titles.

    Beth F - You can keep singing that song over and over... I have a feeling I'll be right there with you soon.

    Molly - I hope you get to read Pym soon. I just love the British feel of her novels!

    Rochester Reader - We can compare notes as we make our way through her novels.

    Erin - Oh, good! Virago has so many wonderful titles. Hope you get to read some of them soon.

  17. I love how you ended up wanting to read more. I ended up feeling content with one Pym novel. However, I did enjoy the depiction of 1950's England (reminding me so much of my grandmother's life!), and I do so respect Mildred's strength and independence. While grieving, sort of, for her isolation even if she didn't. I linked to your review on mine.

    1. Bellezza - Pym has become my comfort reading of choice these days, but I can certainly understand how one would be enough for other readers. Thanks for the link love :-)


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