Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Like Elizabeth Taylor (whose Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek I reviewed fairly recently), Barbara Pym is another of those English novelists I’ve been meaning to try for some time. First published in 1952, Excellent Women was her second novel, and I believe many readers consider it to be one of her best.

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The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in a down-at-heel part of London, ‘so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’. Mildred is very sensible, diplomatic and accommodating; in short, she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments or worries of her own.

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. (pg. 1)

As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred is closely involved with the local Anglo-Catholic church where she helps the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred, with various activities (jumble sales, church bazaars and suchlike). Having never married, Julian and Winifred share a home at the vicarage – they are Mildred’s closest friends.

Into Mildred’s unexciting but fairly settled life come Helena and Rocky Napier, a rather intriguing married couple who have spent the past few years living apart from one another. Helena, an anthropologist by profession, arrives first, moving into the flat below Mildred’s where she seems to spend many an evening entertaining her colleague, the rather standoffish Everard Bone. At first Mildred isn’t sure if she likes Helena, but she does her best to be polite and neighbourly. Rocky appears a few weeks later having just returned to England following an extended stint in the Navy.

It soon becomes apparent that relations between Helena and Rocky are somewhat strained; consequently, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman come in very handy as she attempts to mediate between the couple. Even though it is hard for her to take sides in this situation, Mildred finds Rocky particularly easy to talk to. He is attractive and charming, and Mildred is clearly brightened by his company.

Matters are further complicated when the attractive widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the room at the top of the Malorys’ rectory. At first, everything is sweetness and light. As the former wife of a clergyman, Mrs Gray ought to be ideally suited to life at the vicarage. That said, it is not long before she upsets the balance at the Malorys’. Julian is clearly smitten with her…and when developments have a knock-on effect on Winifred, Mildred is called on for support.

While Mildred is interested in the emotional lives of those around her, she values her own independence and does not feel the need to throw herself into relationships simply in the hope of finding a suitable husband. There are times when she feels she may have missed out on certain experiences in life, but in many ways she takes comfort from the fact that her current position as a spinster is familiar and uncomplicated. By contrast, other people around her seem intent on trying to do a spot of matchmaking. There are a number of occasions when Mildred’s friends and acquaintances seem to think they know what’s best for her (irrespective of Mildred’s own wishes). Take this example as Helena, Rocky and Mildred are travelling home after a night out with Everard Bone – the Napiers even go so far as to start talking about Mildred as if she were not present at the time.

‘You and Everard seemed to be having an interesting conversation,’ said Helena at last. ‘Was he declaring himself or something?’ Her tone was rather light and cruel as if it were the most impossible thing in the world.

‘He was telling me about his new flat,’ I said lamely.

‘Actually he might do very well for Mildred,’ said Rocky. Had we thought of that? Obviously, we must find her a good husband.’

[…]

We were rather far from our own door, and just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out, laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home after the paper. This was Julian’s boys’ club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen – much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent. (pgs. 109-110)

There are other men in Mildred’s life too; most notably the rather finickity William Caldicote, the brother of an old school friend, whom Mildred meets once a year for lunch, and Julian Malory, whom many consider her ideal (and possibly rightful) partner.

Marriage is a central theme in this novel. Set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage, the story explores the idea of whether it is possible for a woman like Mildred to live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried. When she considers the stresses and strains of the Napiers’ marriage (not to mention the nature of developments between Julian Malory and Allegra Gray), Mildred is not at all convinced that she should marry. She does, however, value friendship and companionship in her life and hopes for more of these things in the future.

Excellent Women is my first experience of Barbara Pym’s work, and I hope it won’t be my last. I really enjoyed this story – it is beautifully observed, full of small but significant reflections on life in the 1950s. In many ways, the plot is secondary to other aspects of the novel as much of the focus falls on Mildred’s thoughts, feelings and observations. One of the things I liked most is Pym’s tendency to treat her characters with sympathy. She has a way of conveying humour alongside the difficulties that touch the everyday lives of these people, and yet there is a sense of insight and understanding in her writing, too.

The novel includes several humorous scenes with much of the dry wit coming from the interactions between the characters. There is plenty of gossiping and friendly bickering amongst the volunteers as they organise the parish jumble sale and hold meetings to discuss forthcoming events. All in all, I found it a charming and engaging story.

I’ll finish with a quote from one of the early chapters of the novel, partly because I think it illustrates a little of the humour in the story, Pym’s eye for dry comedy in the small tragedies of everyday life. In this scene, Mildred has joined the Malorys for dinner at the vicarage.

I sat down at the table without any very high hopes, for both Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.

Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese. (pg. 12)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to posts by KaggsyAliVictoriaJane and Alex.

Excellent Women is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

73 thoughts on “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. MarinaSofia

    I love Barbara Pym, although I have to admit that Excellent Women is not my favourite one of hers, although it has all her dry humour and intriguing characters which also appear in her other novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall you saying that you preferred some of her others novels over this one. It came as part of a set of three from The Book People, and as it was the earliest of the bunch I thought I’d start here! I’ve also got No Fond Return of Love and Crampton Hodnet – have you read either of those two by any chance?

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        No Fond Return of Love is lovely (it’s been a while though since I read it, so take this with a pinch of salt). I don’t think I’ve heard of Crampton Hodnet. Checking on Wikipedia, I see it was a novel published posthumously but written quite early on. Would love to hear what you think of it.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, great. I’m glad I’ve got something to look forward to in No Fond Return. That’s interesting about Crampton Hodnet – I’d just zoomed in on the publication date without realising it had been written a good forty years earlier. Maybe I should have started there as it predates Excellent Women…

          Reply
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  3. lonesomereadereric

    I’ve been wanting to read Barbara Pym for some time as well. From your description the story and time period sound like something that I’d really click with. And I love a bit of dry comedy – especially if it involves a dinner scene! Sounds like a good book to start with to get into her writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to some of these somewhat neglected women writers. I guess they fell out of fashion in the 1960s and ’70s when the angry young men were all the rage in the British literary world. On one level Excellent Women is a comedy of manners, but it’s also full of insights into the lives of women and their place in society at the time. Pym’s very sympathetic towards her characters too, so there’s a generous dose of empathy alongside the comedy. I think you’d like her, Eric – either way, I’d love to hear what you think of her work.

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    I’m halfway through this novel, Jacqui, so will return to read your post when I’ve finished. I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far.

    Reply
  5. heavenali

    Oh I do love Barbara Pym, Excellent Woman is a great one to start with so glad you enjoyed it. My favourite Pyms are Jane and Prudence and Quartet in Autumn.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought she might be one of your favourites, Ali. Yes, I’m glad I started with this one, it felt like a good way into her work especially as it was one of her early novels. Quartet in Autumn seems to be very highly regarded, I’m sure I’ve seen others mention it as a favourite too.

      Reply
  6. hastanton

    I have read this ….but many many years ago . Can’t remember much about it except the feeling that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I ought to’ve done. I think perhaps the subtleties of her writing were lost on my youthful self . I must reread it as I think I would appreciate it now .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure what I would have made of this novel had I read it in my twenties or thirties. Maybe I would have found it a bit dated or old-fashioned, it’s difficult to say. It’s funny how age and life experience can affect our responses to certain books. If it’s been a while since you last read anything by Pym, then I’d say she’s worth another try…who knows, you might be surprised!

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I actually find these Pym women quite mysterious, which seems a strange thing to say given the sedate tone in which they speak. That last quote is an example. I still don’t really know what’s in her mind, though the surface seems to be laid out plainly before us.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really interesting. I read that passages as being somewhat indicative of Mildred’s situation, this sense that her life is a bit dull and unexciting (like the food on the Mallorys’ table). Things could be a lot worse, but even so, there’s a feeling that she’s missing out on some of life’s little pleasures. Maybe I’m reading too much into that dinner scene, but I wondered if Pym was planting a few seeds in those early chapters. I agree her characters do seem quite transparent at first, but the closer one looks, the more subtleties begin to emerge. I think I’d have to read another one or two of her books to get a better fix on the Pym women!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I loved Pym’s dry wit and sharpness when I read her – though I rather burnt out after several books as I read them together too quickly. She really does observe character very wonderfully though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved the humour in this, and she balances it with a sense of generosity towards her characters such that you never feel as though things have been taken too far. I can imagine overdosing on these as well…I guess it’s like virtually anything in life, everything in moderation and all that. :)

      Reply
  9. Lady Fancifull

    Mmm – I think you might be sending me back to rediscover. I do admire these light, deft touch, English women writing at a time before the need TO SPELL OUT EVERYTHING PARTICULARLY OF AN INTIMATE NATURE entered in – writers who whisper rather than SHOUT to get the reader’s attention are wonderful. As is that understated, very effective humour, as evidenced in your final quote. It’s the throwaway of ‘And not really enough cheese’ Wonderfully effective

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! Yes, yes, it’s the gentle nature of the dry humour that shines through here, that and the lovely observations on social situations (I loved the comment about the cheese, too!). I’m finding myself increasingly drawn towards these women writers for exactly the reasons you’ve mentioned in your comments, unshowy writers such as Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor and now Barbara Pym. I’ve got an Olivia Manning on the shelves which I’m very keen to get to fairly soon – I’m hoping it might be in a similar vein.

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        I loved The Balkan Trilogy, when I read it long ago. Memory tells me Manning has more happen, more dramatically, than the others you cite, whom I think are more internally reflective. I can feel an interest in a Manning re-read!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          The Balkan Trilogy sounds wonderful. It’s definitely on my radar for the future – not this year as I’ve already got so many unread books on my shelves, but maybe two or three years down the line. The one I have is an earlier Manning, The Doves of Venus, published in the mid-1950s, so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll have to take a look at Jane and Prudence as you’re the second person to mention it today. Did you review this one, Jane? Sorry, I should have checked your blog…I’ll head over to yours in a little while.

      Reply
  10. Brian Joseph

    You always describe books so well Jacqui.

    The characters and the interactions between them sound so interesting and well crafted in this book. I like characters who seem simple on the surface that reveal depth upon closer examination.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Funnily enough, I thought of you when I was putting this review together. You might enjoy Pym, the comedy of manners elements combined with the insights into characters – she’s worth considering. You should try Elizabeth Taylor first though, as I know she’s been on your radar for a while.

      Reply
  11. Elena

    I had never heard of Barbara Pym until I read your review, but it sounds like a very interesting reading offering a dated but historically important view on unmarried women and marriages. I have longed for more domestic stories of lately, so this will surely meet that need. Thanks, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Elena. Pym fell out of fashion in the 1960s and early ’70s, in fact I think she struggled to get published again until Quartet of Autumn came out in the late ’70s. She’s another of those lesser-known women writers, although Virago have been flying the flag for her in recent years.

      As for Excellent Woman, I think this would fit the bill perfectly. It’s very much of its time, a charming look at the society of the day without being overly sentimental. There are some interesting insights into life as an unmarried woman in her thirties, still so young by our standards today but considered on the shelf in the 1950s. How attitudes have changed over the years.

      Reply
  12. Guy Savage

    This was the first Pym novel I read–read them all now. Yes it’s considered her best and is occasionally picked for university courses here. IMO it’s not her best but there you go. It’s still wonderful and there’s no such thing as a bad Pym novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad to hear it, means I’ve got plenty to look forward to. This one came as part of a set of three, so I’ve also got No Fond Return of Love and Crampton Hodnet. She seems to have a penchant for funny names – whoever heard of someone called Everard Bone?!

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Sorry to butt in on your conversation here, but I too bought EW as a bundle of 3 from an online bargain bookseller here in the UK for a remarkably low price (new) – I’m sure you know who I mean. Bought at the same time a set of 8 Hemingways and 3 B. Comyns. Sadly their E. Taylor offer has disappeared – I see you mention her several times in this Reply section, and I’ve still to tackle on of her novels. Look forward to it one day.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No need to apologise, Simon, your comments are always welcome. Yes, I do know who you mean – my set of five Muriel Spark novels came from the same retailer! That’s a shame about the Taylor offer, but her novels are so good it’s worth paying the full price just to give her a try. I think you’d find her very rewarding. Her characterisation is superb.

          Reply
  13. naomifrisby

    Like you, Jacqui, I’ve got a set of Pym novels sitting on my shelf. I haven’t read any of them yet though. I don’t have Excellent Women but your review is enough to convince me I’ll enjoy her work although I’ll possibly also find the restrictions of the time they’re set in frustrating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think you’ll enjoy her, Naomi. I don’t know why I haven’t tried Pym before now, possibly because I’ve often thought her novels might be a bit twee or not quite to my tastes, but this was a real delight. She’s actually very kind to her characters, a more sympathetic writer that I’d imagined her to be. Yes, you may well find some of the attitudes of the day quite frustrating – so much has changed since then, thankfully for the better. Let me know how you get on with her, I’d love to hear.

      Reply
  14. Naomi

    Oh, I have had that same thought many times – not enough cheese in other people’s macaroni. :) This book sounds worth reading just to get a sense of women’s roles in the time it was written. And the humour. Do you get the sense that she is poking fun at the idea of ‘an excellent woman’?
    Great review. I agree with Brian that you always describe the book so well!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It does seem to capture the period very well. My mother was a bit of a Pym fan, and I think I’m beginning to understand why…I suspect she could find a fair amount to relate to in Pym’s world.

      Yes, I do think she’s poking fun at the notion of these excellent women, at least to a certain extent. In the first half of the novel, there’s a sense that everyone takes Mildred for granted, almost as though she isn’t an individual in her own right or someone with their own interests and needs. In a way it’s a little like she’s a commodity, someone to be called upon for tea and sympathy. Gradually though, you begin to get an insight into Mildred’s thoughts and feelings, but I’d better not say anything more for fear of revealing too much about the story. It’s actually a more thoughtful novel than I’d imagined it to be, a very charming read.

      Reply
  15. Alex

    I know that I don’t appreciate Pym as much as I should, probably because I am always drawn in first by the plot of a novel and as you say plot is rarely of primary importance where she is concerned. However, so many of my friends think so highly of her that I know I must try again. I must see about getting her on one of my book group lists and then I will have no excuse.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s difficult, isn’t it. I’ve been struggling to get into the novel I’m currently reading for my book group, primarily because the plot is fairly minimal and the characters feel very sketchy to me! Returning to Pym, it might be worth trying one from a different period of her career to see how you get on? Her later novels — Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died — sound darker than her earlier works so they might have a little more bite?

      Reply
  16. RedHeadedBookLover

    Hi there! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this blog post of yours… Not just this one but all of them because they are all equally great.

    I should mention that because of how much I loved this post of yours I had to check out your blog and I couldn’t help but follow you because your blog is both amazing and beautiful. I am so happy I came across your blog and found it because I do really love it and I truly can’t wait to read more from you, so keep it up (:

    P.s. This comment is towards all of your blog posts because they are all equally amazing and incredible, keep up the great work (:

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed my review. I’ve been meaning to read Pym for quite some time now, and in many ways I wish I’d picked her up years ago. Excellent Women turned out to be a real delight, so I’m sure I’ll be returning to this author fairly soon!

      Reply
  17. BookerTalk

    By coincidence last night I too finished my first ever Barbara Pym read. I had the first of her works, the Tame Gazelles. It had many similarities with Excelent Women – clergymen, marriage, eating. Quite delicious and I know I will be back for more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! I shall look forward to reading your review of Tame Gazelles. It does sound as though there are some nice parallels between the two novels. I get the feeling that Pym identifies very strongly with this world of clergymen and church bazaars…

      Reply
  18. Desiree B. Silvage

    I haven’t read anything by this author, but reading your post I have an interest in the character of Mildred. I’ll try to look for this novel, but translated to Spanish to reading faster.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved Mildred! Pym gives the reader a good insight into her mind, the kinds of thoughts and questions she grapples with as she reflects on her position in life. I do hope you manage to find a Spanish translation of this novel. It’s one of Pym’s best-known books, so there’s a good chance it’s been translated.

      Reply
  19. Alex

    SPOILER!
    It was in my best-of-2015 list, even though I struggled with the end. I was so hoping she would stay happily single instead of what seems to me marrying for the wrong reasons.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I must head over to your blog to read your post.

      ******Spoilers*****

      I have to admit to liking the ending. Even though it’s pretty optimistic, there’s a touch of ambiguity about it…we don’t know she’ll end up marrying him despite the final scene. I can understand your frustration with it though. I guess I just wanted Mildred to feel ‘settled’ at the end. :)

      Reply
  20. Maureen Murphy

    Oh, I just love Miss. Pym! I think her literary reputation will continue to climb as the years go by. Thank you for this, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Maureen – delighted to hear you are a fan of Pym! I’m a little late to party with her, but this was a great intro, a real treat.

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        I had the funny experience of going to a one-day conference on “Writing the Legal Thriller.” Someone evaluated a sample chapter and synopsis you provided. The feedback was that my material wasn’t really a ‘legal thriller’ but the reviewer liked it because it “reminds me of Barbara Pym.” That was what got me connected to her. :)

        Reply
  21. Scott W

    I had a Barbara Pym novel sitting on the shelf for a couple of decades, then discarded it thinking I’d never read it. What a mistake! When I finally did read her – A Glass of Blessings – I just couldn’t believe how good she was. Your excellent post reminds me that it’s time to get back to her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, if I didn’t already own another couple of Pym’s novels, I would be heading out to buy A Glass of Blessings as it sounds delightful! Max reviewed it a few months ago, and it made his end-of-year highlights for 2015. I hope you do return to her work, Scott – it would be nice to see a review from you.

      Reply
  22. Maureen Murphy

    Oh my. Just reread the section of your essay featuring poor, demoralized Mrs. Jubb and had to pass something along. My niece Erin, age 3, was taken out to a Boston ice cream shop while visiting my mother and father. At the time, she refused to eat anything but fish fingers, jello, French fries and macaroni and cheese. She was given a large platter of the latter, and after a taste, put down her fork and looked out the window, her eyes slowly welling with tears.

    My mother asked her what was wrong, and she broke down at last, sobbing “It’s… too….. Cheeeesy!.”

    The Murphys are known for the fiercely bland character of their food, which is generally cooked or boiled for at least an hour or more.

    :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Thank you for sharing that story, Maureen. I too was reminded of family meals when I read that passage about the macaroni. It’s funny how we get used to certain flavours or ways of presenting food. I recall taking my young goddaughter and her two brothers out for a pizza a few years ago. The youngest boy (aged five or six at the time) couldn’t cut his own pizza so I ended up helping him. Once I’d portioned it into triangles he started to cry. Why? Because the pieces were the wrong shape. At home his mother would cut a pizza into rectangular-shaped slices. Oh, well…

      Reply
  23. Lisa Hill

    I really like the way Anita Brookner dissects marriage in her novels. They’re quiet, reflective works, but her women are independent and strong even when they are considering surrendering their freedom.

    Reply
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  26. Caroline

    I’ve read one of her novels a very long time ago and I know I should read more. After reading your review, I know I’ll love her. Luckily I got this in a collection of her books.
    the one I read and liked very much was The Sweet Dove Died. It’s been a while ago but I remember it was bitter sweet.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll enjoy this one, Caroline. She’s softer than Elizabeth Taylor, more witty at times, but there are some parallels between the two. The Sweet Dove Died is one of her later books after she came back from the wilderness. I’ve heard it’s a little darker than Excellent Women and her other early novels. It does sound excellent, another one for my wishlist. :)

      Reply
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