Goodreads: Excellent Women
Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors–anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door–the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.
I’d never heard of Barbara Pym before coming across this book, so the idea that Excellent Women is a classic was news to be, as well as the fact that Pym has been called the “20th century Jane Austen.” After finishing Excellent Women, however, I agree that Pym has a remarkable talent for capturing life and portraying characters, and I would love to read more of her work.
Excellent Women is interesting in the fact that it represents ordinary people. The protagonist Mildred is an unmarried “churchy” sort of person whose first big excitement in the novel is that an “unsuitable”couple has come to live in the flat below hers. Some of the beauty of the novel, however, is that these flashier, more educated people are not actually more important than Mildred in any way. At first I found this premise of the book a bit depressing, the idea that most of us don’t achieve anything in particular or make an impact in the world; even some of the anthropologists in the novel, who might be thought to be “contributing something,” muse whether it’s worth it. By the end, however, I found the story a bit more optimistic. Mildred has friends and work she enjoys, and she’s just about to embark on something a bit new to her. She helps others and is generally kind, and even if she frequently worries she comes across as a bit boring or plain (she balks at the idea one would find her just the sort of sensible person who would keep their oven mitt conveniently on a nail by the cooker), I think there’s something admirable in being dependable.
One question of the story is whether her helpfulness and reliability is seen as meddling (I had a debate with a friend who’s also read the book). I do think there’s an element of that. The “excellent women” of the parish, for instance, have particular ways about how things must be done and see themselves as having to “protect” their pastor from “unsuitable” marriages. One might think of them as sticking their noses into things. However, my interpretation is that Mildred is often being opposed upon by people who know she’s going to help them. She finds herself hemming other people’s curtains, tidying up their flats, cooking them dinner, making them tea, and even helping them sort out their marital problems. She could say “no,” I suppose, but in many instances I think she accidentally finds herself involved and feels it too impolite to back out, and often she’s a bit annoyed at having to be so helpful.
Aside from Milded’s superbly drawn character, I enjoyed the setting of the book. The introduction of the Penguin edition talks a lot about the post-war period (and particularly points out the food, which seemed depressing once I noticed it). I appreciated how much things have and have not changed since the 1950’s when this was published. It was the little things that often jumped out at me, such as when Mildred wakes up early to greet the movers at 8 am, and of course they don’t show up until nearly 10.
If you enjoy social commentary, books about ordinary people, stories about the role of women, or just well-written books that seem a bit different, I would recommend Excellent Women.