Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym

Published: 1952
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: London 1950's
Rating: 3
Reviews:  Goodreads and Books and Chocolate and Dovegreyreader
Web sites: Index of Barbara Pym's writings

Picked this book up at the library after reading a review from Books and Chocolate.  Protagonist is an unmarried spinster named Mildred Lathbury who spends her time attending church services, volunteering at church events such as the jumble sale and Christmas bazaar, and visiting "distressed gentlewomen".  She lives alone as both parents are deceased and has a small group of friends.  Her life is stable, predictable and uneventful.

Until some strangers come to town (master plot).  These are the new neighbors, Helena and Rockingham  "Rocky" Napier, Helena's anthropologist colleague, Everard Bone (what a crazy name) and newly widowed and beautiful Allegra Gray.  Four strangers that insert themselves into her life and thoughts or musings.

I am reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte and find similarities between Mildred and Lucy Snowe.  Both fit the definition of an excellent woman as stated on the back cover of Pym's book: "the smart, supportive, repressed women whom men take for granted."

Other similarities: both are mild-mannered and perhaps pride themselves in the ability to keep their feelings in check, under tight rein and control.  Both are quiet observers - interested in mentally documenting the good/bad characteristics of those around them.  Both are reluctant to impose themselves on others and tend to keep relationships at a safe distance.  Both enjoy the company of others but need time to themselves.  Both are self sufficient and independent, which is a treasured state of being.

Tea and the making of tea is mentioned many times in the book.  My favorite tea quotes:
"So he did 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."
"The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena had left him.  I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method in making it.  Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?"
I kept reading, hoping for a "happily ever after" ending.  Would Mildred leave spinsterhood and find love with Julian Malory, the vicar with whom everyone wanted her paired with or Everard Bone, the quirky, unsociable anthropologist?

The last paragraph sums it up - although she will not find love per se, she will find a fulfilled life in meeting the needs of others - in being and remaining an 'excellent woman'.
"He (Malory) might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house.  So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called 'a full life' after all." 
I would be interested in reading more of this author.


  1. Thank you for leaving such a lovely comment on my blog yesterday. I'm quite impressed by all your content here! And what a lovely tribute to your son.

    As to Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, it's not a book I've read myself, although I have a copy in my ever-increasing To Be Read pile! Perhaps I should dust it off for a read... ?

  2. Pym is a lovely writer, Virago have republished a collection of her books (including excellent women) I'm guessing they should be easy enough to get hold of and can recommend all of them so far.

    I'm delighted to have found your blog:)