Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much.

So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back.

Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons and lengthy intercessions. They always spoke to my mother – they had know her since she was a small girl coming to church with her own mother – and whenever something was going on, be it a coffee morning or a jumble sale, they were always there and they were always busy.

When I was a small girl I thought that they were ancient, but looking back I think most of them would have been in their sixties. Years layer my mother used to visit one of those ladies when she was housebound, and I remember my mother telling me that she was always so welcoming and so appreciative. Not long after she did her nephew appeared on our doorstep with two carved elephants. My mother had mentioned in passing that she remembered her parents having a similar pair, and she had made a note that nother was to have her elephants.

I’m rambling, but I’m going to come to the point now. Mildred Lathbury – the excellent woman who tells this story was so real, so utterly believable that I am quite prepared to believe that I might have been looking at her back and her hat back in the day.

Excellent Women

Mildred Lathbury was the daughter of a clergyman, and she had been brought up in a country vicarage, but when she found herself alone in the world she moved to a small flat near the Anglican church that she regularly attended. She was a stalwart of that church and had formed a close friendship with Winifred Mallory. She was the vicar’s sister and, as both sister and brother were ummarried, they lived together in the vicarage. It had been suggested that Mildred would be an excellent wife for Julian Mallory …

New arrivals heralded change.

First new neighbours moved into the flat below Mildred’s. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, arrived first, and Mildred was taken aback when Helena spoke to her freely and frankly, when she announced that she didn’t go to church, when she said that she didn’t believe in housework. Her husband, Rockingham had just come out of the navy and was on his way home from Italy. Mildred wasn’t sure if she liked Helena but she was intrigued by her, and by new possibilities.

And then the Mallory’s decided to let a room. Allegra Grey was a clergyman’s widow and she seemed to be the ideal person to share the vicarage. She wasn’t, and some worked that out more quickly than others. There was much speculation, and a good deal of gossiping

Mildred’s relationship with the Napiers was lovely to watch. She was flattered to be asked for help and advice, and she came to realise that marriage was far, far more complicated than she had realised. And that she was rather more involved than she really wanted to be. Events at the vicarage offered interesting parallels and contrasts. Church events provided a wonderful backdrop. And I haven’t even mentioned Everest Bone …

Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable.

It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.

Mildred’s voice rang completely true, and I did like her. She was a genuinely nice woman, practical intelligent, and dependable. She didn’t think marriage was the answer to everything, she liked having her independence and her own space, but she did rather like the idea of being married, of having a companion in life.

And now I have just one more word – excellent!

14 responses

  1. I first read Barbara Pym because you recommended her; and this was the book I read (because I couldn’t find Some Tame Gazelle)…and I loved this novel. It made me laugh, and Mildred quickly became one of my favorite characters. Thanks again for turning me onto B. Pym!!

  2. I am reading it right now ( and like it too)! I also just read the Quartet In Autumn and thought it was very good, just a little bitter but that was fine with me as it seemed so believable. I also have Less Than Angels and Crampton Hodnet by Pym. I have a big pile of great books just in from the library but I am reading Pym first then i’ll go on to the others.

  3. So glad you enjoyed Excellent Women – it is a a lovely novel I enjoyed re-reading it. I now think that Jane and Prudence is my favourite Pym novel – closely followed by No Fond Return of Love – we’ll see if my opinion changes after this year of reading Pym.

  4. This book was my re-introduction to Barbara Pym, and I loved it. I have a couple saved up for the Pym reading week in June – but I do wonder if any of her books can match this one.

  5. I have only recently discovered Barbara Pym and I am really enjoying her books. I agree that this one is the best I have read (so far).

  6. I’ve linked your review to mine as we celebrate Pym Reading Week with Thomas of My Porch. I, too, liked Mildred’s independence, the way that she was practical and real and strong. I also felt nostalgic for times past, and a cup of tea which is capable of curing so much. I didn’t love this novel, by any means, but I do think Pym’s message a worthy one.

  7. Pingback: Pym Reading Week: Excellent Women | Dolce Bellezza

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  9. Pingback: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Lovely review, Jane. I think you’re right about the little details in this book, they really do bring Mildred’s story to life. I really liked the fact that she wanted to maintain a sense of independence, favouring companionship over marriage.

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