Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


Barbara Pym, a British writer who flourished in the 1950s, is regarded as the quintessential writer of British social comedies and according to an article in The Guardian, one of the most amusing. I have seen her name mentioned in the same paragraph with Jane Austen more than once. So I chose Excellent Women, described as perhaps her best book.

Despite being a fan of British women writers (Elizabeth Taylor, Nina Stibbe, Jane Austen, Kate Atkinson) and having enjoyed their humor, I was surprised that I couldn’t find much humor in Excellent Women. The narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a 30-something woman in London who describes herself as a spinster and counts herself among the “excellent women.”  These women are spinsters who live the circumscribed life helping others, organizing jumble sales for their churches, and wearing frumpy brown clothes.

The war had recently ended (the second one, that is) and Mildred is living in an upstairs flat. Helena Napier moves in downstairs and says her husband Rocky would be coming home from Italy where he charmed WRENs (women in the Royal Naval Service) for his war service. There is more than a hint of scandal as Helena is an anthropologist who worked closely with a man named Everard Bone to write up the results of their field work together. It turns out Helena’s big sin for the “excellent” Mildred is her complete lack of domestic skills. I thought Helena might be interesting, but it turns out she is as wearying as Mildred. Mildred had a bit of a crush on the charming Rocky, but his interest was in her willingness to make tea and do the “washing up.”

Mildred spends time with Julian, the vicar of her church and his sister Winifred. There had always been twittering about Mildred marrying Julian, but it had come to nothing. When Julian and Winifred acquire a lodger, things go badly as the high-handed widow Allegra Gray charms Julian, but goes too far in her attempts to push Winifred out of the house. All is returned to normal so that the vicar, his sister and Mildred can be tea-drinking pals.

The doings of these people was even duller than this brief description makes them seem.

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women, Plume (in Amazon), first published 1952, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

Add comment



Recent Posts


Blogs I Like