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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – Meet Mildred, the spitfire spinster.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) French title: Des femmes remarquables.

Our Book Club had picked Excellent Women by Barbara Pym for our March read and what fun it turned out to be.

The narrator of this little gem is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-year-old Londoner. We’re in 1952, which means that Mildred should be married with children right now and she’s reaching her expiration date for the only career allowed to women at the time, wife and mother. She’s the daughter of a clergyman, her parents have passed away, leaving her a little money. She lives on her own in a flat. She’s involved in the church nearby and she’s friends with its single pastor, Julian Malory and his sister Winnifred. She used to have her friend Dora as a roommate but she moved out to take a teaching position elsewhere. Mildred’s little world is made of church activities, tea with church friends and the occasional meetings with Dora or her bachelor brother William.

Her tidy world is disturbed when the Napiers move into her apartment building. Helena Napier is a pretty young anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (Rocky) is in the military, coming back to England after being stationed in Italy. This couple is not like any of the people in Mildred’s usual social circle.

First, she meets with Helena and she opens Mildred to unthinkable ways-of-life. Ones where a woman has a man’s job, goes on missions abroad with male colleagues and is no homemaker. A world where the husband might compensate part of the housework himself.

The Napiers befriend Mildred and introduce her into their social circle. She goes to an anthropology convention to hear Helena and her partner Everard talk about their work. Mildred wonders if the two are lovers. Meanwhile, she’s getting friendly with Rocky, a charming young man who enjoys her company. The Napier marriage is sailing into stormy weather and Mildred is a good listener, sought out from both parties.

She’s just starting to get used to the upheavals brought by the Napiers when Mrs Allegra Gray, an attractive widow,  moves into the apartment above the Malories. Allegra is a newcomer who will worm herself into Julian and Winnifred’s lives, disturbing the balance of their friendship with Mildred.

I loved Excellent Women and especially Mildred. You expect the classic spinster having an ill-fated romance with a married scoundrel. And that’s where Barbara Pym turns all the tables on the reader and chooses a totally different path. She wrote a comedy with lots of references to classics with female protagonists. Mildred is not Emma Bovary and Rockingham is no Rodolphe.

Mildred is well-appreciated for her good sense and often helps friends and acquaintances. She is more sense than sensibility. She’s not secretly in love with Father Julian Malory. She’s not a doormat or a wallflower. She’s not a cliché. She doesn’t fall in love with roguish Rockingham, she’s not a Catherine Sloper either. She keeps her wits and when she finds herself in the middle of everyone’s drama, she keeps calm and takes action.

From the first page, Pym sets the tone as Mildred tells us:

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.

Doesn’t that remind you of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Pym will later insist on distancing her heroin from others famous ones.

She [Mrs Napier] was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

I’ve always thought of Jane Eyre as a spineless doormat anyway. I’m team Mildred.

Mildred is what Emma Wodehouse would have become if she had not married Mr Knightley. She enjoys her independence. Like Emma, she doesn’t see marriage as her lifegoal. It’s not a necessity as she has enough money on her own. She doesn’t see the point of becoming a man’s glorified maid. Mildred is not Charlotte Lucas. I loved that she refused to go to Everard’s place for diner when she discovered she’d have to cook it first. For the next invitation, he managed to find someone else to do the cooking. Go Mildred! She points out:

And before long I should be certain to find myself at his sink peeling potatoes and washing up; that would be a nice change when both proof-reading and indexing began to pall. Was any man worth this burden?

Mildred is not actively looking for love but if it came her way, she’d probably change her mind. She doesn’t want a man to choose her as a partner because she’s practical, organized or would be a good housewife. Like a useful farm animal. Her parents are dead, she’s financially independent and she has a room of her own. Despite being a clergyman’s daughter, she feels closer to a Virginia than to a Jane:

My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She might not be an anthropologist like Helena but she’s quite modern under her conservative shell and I loved her for that. I had a delightful time in her company. She’s fun to be with, like here at a diner table:

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?

She’s sensible and witty. Pym created a protagonist with a quick mouth, a wonderful sense of observation and a healthy dose of self-deprecating sense of humour. (I felt that I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to.) Her quick wit and sarcastic tone are refreshing. She doesn’t want to impose her way of life to anyone, she doesn’t judge other people’s lifestyle and in that she differs greatly from your usual churchy protagonist. Mildred remarks Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. Isn’t she delightful?

Excellent Women is a laugh-out-loud comedy and with Mildred, the reader is in excellent company. Very highly recommended.

Other reviews: Read Jacqui’s here and Kaggsy’s here

I can’t resist adding a last quote, a last taste of Mildred’s oh-so-British sense of humour.

I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

  1. April 7, 2019 at 11:03 am

    This sounds excellent – a little like Miss Pettigrew lives for the day, when a woman living in a ‘little world’ finds herself discovering a whole new way of living!


    • April 7, 2019 at 11:06 am

      It’s a lot more feminist than Miss Pettigrew.
      And the literary references are here.
      I’d love to read your thoughts on this one.


      • April 7, 2019 at 11:32 am

        I’ll see if I can track down a copy:)


        • April 7, 2019 at 12:43 pm

          I’m almost sure you’ll like it. I’m even surprised you haven’t read it yet.


  2. Marina Sofia
    April 7, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Isn’t Barbara Pym a delight? I also love the way she gently pokes fun at anthropologists (being one myself). She knew the species well!


    • April 7, 2019 at 12:43 pm

      She’s great. I can’t wait to read another of her books. Which one would you recommend?


  3. April 7, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    She’s one of my favourite authors – not as cosy and gentle as her reputation might suggest. Hope you don’t mind if I add a link to my own post on this from a few years ago – one of several such on Pym novels: https://wp.me/s3oBGt-1102
    Didn’t know it was published by Penguin: what a nice cover


    • April 7, 2019 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for the link.

      It was my first Pym. She doesn’t seem to be that well-known in France, I discovered her on British blogs.
      Which one would you recommend after Excellent Women?


      • April 7, 2019 at 2:14 pm

        I don’t think she’s written a bad novel; I’ve written about four others here: http://tredynasdays.co.uk/?s=barbara+pym&submit=Search
        I did like ‘Crampton Hodnet’ – like the others, it’s quintessentially English. Not surprised she’s not well known in France! Jane and Prudence is also good; some characters recur across the range of novels, but all are perfectly readable in any order, I’d say. Quartet is a late one, perhaps best left till last…


  4. April 7, 2019 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks for the link, Emma. this is such fun, isn’t it? It was my first Pym if I recall correctly, and it’s just wonderful!


    • April 13, 2019 at 10:01 pm

      Sorry for the late answer, I missed your comment.
      It’s such a funny book. I’ll keep Pym in mind for future reads.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. April 7, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    Great review of a novel I love Emma – go Mildred!


    • April 7, 2019 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks! And indeed, Go Mildred!
      I loved that Pym refused to go into all the clichés about spinsters.
      Do you think she wrote a book with a character who’s an accountant? Lots of clichés there, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • April 7, 2019 at 8:41 pm

        I’m not aware that she did but I’ve still many of her gems awaiting me, so maybe she did! If not, it’s a gap in the market – you could write it 🙂


        • April 7, 2019 at 8:42 pm

          Aw no, I’m not a writer. I’d rather be a translator, that’s a fascinating job.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Jonathan
    April 7, 2019 at 7:41 pm

    I really enjoyed EW when I read it ladt year. I ended up buying a few more by her that were available in a secondhand bookshop. Quartet in Autumn is the only other one that I’ve read but it was even better than EW in my opinion. I think by the end of EW Mildred seems to be the only sane person.


    • April 13, 2019 at 10:05 pm

      Sorry for my very late answer, I missed your comment, somehow.
      I also think that Mildred seems to be the only level-headed one.

      I liked that the ending is rather open, that Pym avoided the HEA pitfall. And of course, I loved the idea of the pastor falling stupidly in love with the female equivalent of a womanizer.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. April 7, 2019 at 10:30 pm

    I also recently read this book and really enjoyed it – Mildred feels like a surprisingly up-to-date heroine for a book that is so fixed in a particular time period.


    • April 8, 2019 at 9:48 pm

      Exactly. You expect Mildred to be a remnant of Victorian days and she’s not. Not at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. April 8, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    I greatly enjoyed ‘Excellent Women’, too – and the way in which Barbara Pym turns stereotypes on their head. But my all-time favourite Pym novel is ‘Jane and Prudence’ which, no matter how many times I re-read it remains warm, witty and, at times, side-splittingly funny.


    • April 8, 2019 at 9:49 pm

      She does something fantastic and unexpected with stereotypes.
      I’ll keep Jane and Prudence in mind, I really want to read another one by her. Thanks for the recommandation.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. April 8, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    That does sound good fun, and I like what you say about the comparisons with Austenesque and Bronteesque characters! Clearly a good Book Club pick.


    • April 8, 2019 at 9:50 pm

      It is good fun. Nobody else commented on the literary references but I’m sure I didn’t make them up.
      It’s an excellent novel, funny, well-written, a good writer to turn to after a bleak or difficult book.


  10. April 9, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    I loved her Glass of Blessings, and have this so it’s a definite must read. A bit higher up the tbr pile though after your review.

    Re the literary references, I haven’t seen anyone else comment on those also and I thought that rather interesting so I’m glad you did.

    I’ve had a few middling (at best) reads recently, next time that happens I’ll schedule this in.


    • April 10, 2019 at 10:12 pm

      Good to know that Glass of Blessings is good too.
      I’d be interested in reading your review about this one and see.if you spot literary references too.


  11. April 10, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the link, Emma, very kind. I’m so glad you enjoyed this – I think it has a little more depth than some of her other novels, but they’re all rather delightful. It’s where I started with Pym, and I’ve never looked back since. Of the others I’ve read, Crampton Hodnet, Some Tame Gazelle, and Jane & Prudence are my favourites, so there’s plenty for you to look forward to in the future!


    • April 10, 2019 at 10:16 pm

      You’re welcome and thanks for the other Pym recommendations.


  12. April 13, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    That sounds like *very* British humour indeed, Emma 🙂 And I like that the author turns the tables, avoiding the well-worn plot lines and taking a different path. Sounds like a good read!


    • April 13, 2019 at 9:56 pm

      It’s really funny and it is possible I missed things because I read it in English and who knows which references went over my head. I had to ask about “slut” in the following context:

      ‘Oh, God, yes! You’d hate sharing a kitchen with me. I’m such a slut,’ she said, almost proudly. While she made the tea I occupied myself by looking at her books, which were lying in stacks on the floor. Many of them seemed to be of an obscure scientific nature, and there was a pile of journals with green covers which bore the rather stark and surprising title of Man. I wondered what they could be about. ‘I hope you don’t mind tea in mugs,’ she said, coming in with a tray. ‘I told you I was a slut.’

      I read it after If Beale Street Could Talk and the switch from English in Harlem in the 1970s to English in London in 1952 was an experience.


  13. April 14, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    No such thing as a bad Pym novel. My favourite in Quartet in Autumn which is completely different from the rest. I wouldn’t recommend it next though. I’d say An Unsuitable Attachment. Jane and Prudence and Crampton Hodnet have reappearing characters so you might want to read them in sequence.
    I’d leave An Academic Question to the last.


    • April 16, 2019 at 1:41 pm

      Thanks for the recommandations about the books and the sequence to read them. Much appreciated.
      I’ll revisit her. (now I still have to tackle the pesky TBR first…)


  14. Elena W
    August 14, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    What a wonderful review. I love how you described Mildred as sensible and witty; definitely accurate! And the spaghetti and tea quotes you mentioned are some of my favorites, along with this one about tea: “I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.” LOL!

    Here is my recent review on Excellent Women, if interested! https://elle-alice.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-classics-club-excellent-women.html


    • August 14, 2020 at 10:24 pm

      Thank you for your message.
      I loved Mildred and that she was never quite what the reader could expect of her.
      I’ve read your review but didn’t manage to comment there.


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