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.