I thoroughly enjoyed Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women. It tells the story of Mildred Lathbury, a woman in her 30s whose life is taken up with part-time work helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” attending services and volunteering at the church, and maintaining friendships with the vicar and his sister. She also finds herself endlessly caught up in other people’s business:
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives 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 that there is no hope for her.
She is one of the “excellent women” of the novel’s title, women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time to — and are expected to — devote themselves to taking care of others.
As the novel opens, a new couple is moving into the flat above Mildred’s; they are Helena and Rocky, and Mildred does not know what to make of them. Helena is an anthropologist and not terribly interested in her marriage; she spends her time with fellow-anthropologist Everard, working on writing up their field notes. She is a terrible housekeeper, a fact that disturbs and intrigues Mildred. Rocky is utterly charming and perhaps a trifle fake; Mildred quickly falls for him, but also wonders, as she does, whether Rocky really means to charm her, or whether he simply can’t help but make women fall in love with him.
Helena and Rocky disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. She is quickly doing things she has never done before, such as attending lectures in anthropology and mediating marital squabbles. Her life is further disrupted when the vicar — her close friend and up to now a confirmed bachelor — begins a flirtation and gets engaged.
The novel is told in the first person, which Pym uses very cleverly to capture Mildred’s thoughtful, intelligent voice, but also to make clear to the reader her naivete and lack of experience; Helena, for example, hints that the vicar might be gay, but this passes right over Mildred’s head. And yet Mildred knows she hasn’t experienced much — she’s very aware of her limitations, painfully aware at times. She does her best, wading into the deeper waters recent experience has led her to, but she also longs for things to be the way they once were, quiet and comfortable.
As much as she is aware of her lack of experience, however, Mildred has a strong sense of identity; she knows who she is, what her social role is, and how she wants to live. As an “excellent woman,” she accepts that many people expect her to help them out — why shouldn’t she, after all? What else does she have to do? She tries to be useful, but also to keep from being used — and here she fails now and then, as each of the main characters takes advantage of her at one point or another. It’s frustrating at times to watch Mildred trying and frequently failing to maintain the balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself.
For me, the pleasure of reading this novel lies in Mildred’s astute understanding of her small world; she knows it’s a small world, but what’s important is that it’s hers and she wants to enjoy it. She’s capable of viewing it with a critical, satirical eye, but also of loving it. She strikes me as courageous — both in accepting her life as it is and in remaining open to the ways it can possibly change.
8 responses to “Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women”
Lovely review! I have never read Pym but now several people have mentioned this book to me recently – all positive reviews. I really should try and find a copy!
Great review, Dorothy. One of the things I love most about Pym’s writing is her delicate irony. Mildred is an ‘excellent woman’ because there’s nothing else she can be; she’s not beautiful or particularly clever or streetwise. It’s a default position for the kind of woman whom adventurous fate has passed by, and Mildred assumes the burden of excellence, wanting, I think, to be naughty and far from excellent at times! I adored this novel, too, and you make me want to pick up something by her immediately!
I recently re-read this after more than 25 years, and I found to my delight that I loved it just as much all these years later. I think we all know women like this, even today, and I have always loved them. I think they have some sort of secret. And I think the character does, too. I really like Barbara Pym’s writing, and just last evening began Jane and Prudence.
I’ve been hearing about Pym for years but have not yet read anything by her. “Excellent Women” definitely sounds like one that I would like. Thanks for piquing my interest! I will track down a copy pronto…
You write about books so well Dorothy. I really liked Mildred. She knows the role she ended up with–being an excellent woman–but she doesn’t seem unhappy by it, I thought. I think a part of her does like getting mixed up with people like Rocky and Helena, but at the same time I think she was happy to see them go. I think your description of her as astute and courageous is very good. She would crack me up sometimes with her observations. I’d like to read more of Pym’s work as well.
Verbivore — thank you, and I do think you’d enjoy her!
Litlove — delicate irony is exactly the way to describe it; there’s something so appealing in the tone! After reading your comment and Danielle’s, I’m thinking that it’s the pull between contentment with being an “excellent woman” and a longing to be naughty now and then that provides the narrative tension and the interest Mildred has for the reader.
Nan — I’m glad to hear this book held up so well to a re-reading! I’d certainly be interested in re-reading this down the line. I’ll have to get a copy of Jane and Prudence sometime soon.
Kate — I would love to hear what you think!
Danielle — yes, her observations made me laugh too! There’s so much to savor here. I read somewhere that there’s a sequel to this one — I’ll have to hunt it down.
I will copy down the title and read it later dorothy – it sounds like a wonderful novel that I can really relate to. When you said, “balance between taking care of others and taking care of herself” — it really struck me — it is something that I too have trouble with, and it would be nice to read about someone else’s experience with this.
Yay for Pym! I read the book so long ago now it seems I should try and read it again sometime. Or maybe I should read another of Pym’s books. I did after all finally find a copy of Quartet in Autumn after looking for it for a number of years.