Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Muchos gracias to the worthy readers out there who tut-tutted at my comments that I wasn’t that fussed by Barbara Pym after reading Jane and Prudence and urged me to read Excellent Women before I condemned her to the ‘not my cup of tea’ category.  I throw my hands up and say – you were right, and I was wrong! To think I nearly resolved to never read a Pym again and would have missed out on this reading joy…I cannot bear the thought of it.  Barbara Pym is now my new favourite writer and I want to track down all of her novels. Excellent Women is truly magnificent. You must read it!!

Through the eyes of intelligent, witty and much put upon self-declared spinster Mildred Lathbury, Pym brilliantly exposes the hilarity and poignancy of our everyday lives. Mildred is an orphaned clergyman’s daughter in her very early thirties, living in a flat with a shared bathroom in a down at heel London neighbourhood that is probably meant to be in the vicinity of Victoria station. It is the early 1950s, and Mildred lives off a small annuity left to her by her father, while working in the mornings at the Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund and spending the rest of her time helping with the parochial duties of the local High Anglican church, which is led by her friend Father Malory. Mildred is an ‘Excellent Woman’ – the type who is always making tea, dispensing sympathy and being calm in a crisis. She is on the periphery of everyone’s lives – necessary to no one, as she herself observes – and yet this periphery existence in other’s lives is really the only thing that gives her own life meaning. This all sounds quite depressing, and it would be in the hands of a less deft writer, but Mildred’s wry acceptance of her position is what makes her such a successful heroine. She is, as she points out in the early pages, no Jane Eyre – ‘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’ – there will be no romantic happy ending, no melodramatics, no real change – Mildred’s life will always carry on in much the same vein, and it is how Mildred finds meaning and happiness in her humdrum existence that makes Excellent Women so wonderfully charming.

As the novel opens, Mildred is awaiting the arrival of new neighbours. The downstairs flat – with which she shares a bathroom – has been taken by the Napiers, a glamorous couple who married hastily during the war. Mildred finds herself rather intimidated upon meeting Helena Napier, a pretty and dashingly dressed blonde who turns out to be an anthropologist and rather useless at domestic tasks. Her husband, the unfeasibly named Rockingham, is in Italy serving as an Admiral’s aide, and is due to come home within the next few weeks. Mildred soon creates an impression of him, fuelled by Helena’s observation that he has had nothing to do except be kind to Wrens in unflattering uniforms at social events. When ‘Rocky’ does arrive, Mildred’s impression is proved right; he is charming, handsome and knows just how to make a plain Jane feel flattered. The Napiers soon draw Mildred into their lives, each using her to confide their marital problems and expecting her to provide tea and sympathy at a moment’s notice. Before she knows what is happening, Mildred is attending lectures at the Learned Anthropological Society and drinking beer in the local pub with Rocky Napier and Helena’s love interest, a fellow anthropologist by the deliciously appropriate name of Everard Bone. If this wasn’t bad enough, Father Malory takes up with the newly arrived and far too well dressed young widow Allegra Gray, and all the other ‘Excellent Women’ of the parish are up in arms as they wanted Mildred and Father Malory to marry. Used, pitied and depended upon by others, none of whom seem to bother about her own feelings or interests, Mildred chronicles her life with good humour and plenty of self deprecation, but she really comes into her own when both the Napiers and Father Malory run into romantic difficulties, and she is called upon to intervene…

Pym really is excellent at drawing out the gentle humour and pathos that is inherent in all of our lives. The guilty pleasure in buying yourself flowers; the depressing quality of returning home alone to nothing in the fridge and the laughter of your happier, more successful at life neighbours echoing through the wall; the moment of awkwardness when you run out of small talk at a party; the comfort of a cup of tea after a long day – it’s all here, and all described absolutely perfectly. Life can often fall short of the mark, and seem to become a series of small disappointments; so few of us achieve what we dreamed of or experience the heights of passion novels promise, and it is how we cope with this reality that Pym captures so astutely. Mildred is compelling as a character not because she is superbly clever, or successful, or beautiful, or glamorous, or witty – it is simply because she is so reassuringly normal. She leads a small life, with small pleasures and small disappointments. At times this is enough and Mildred can genuinely say that she is happy and desires nothing more, and at other times, she does have sobering reflections on how insignificant her life is and whether she could have tried harder to achieve the fullness she sees other people enjoying.  I’m sure we can all relate to such feelings of fleeting regret and sadness, yet Excellent Women never descends into melancholy; life goes on, and the overall impression that Pym gives is that there are always compensations enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. Quite.

The joy of Pym’s writing is in her terrific wit, and her brilliantly sharp observations of the tiny details that so completely form the whole of a personality, event, or room. It was pure pleasure to read this, and I really didn’t want it to end. Mildred is such an endearing character; a 1950s Bridget Jones (without the wanton sex with Hugh Grant-esque cads) in the sense that she is a bit of a failure at life and knows it, and she articulates so many of the thoughts I have on a daily basis (especially about the patronisation of single women by smug-coupled-women that is absolutely infuriating) that I couldn’t help but laugh and think that we would probably be good friends in real life. The only aspect of the novel that I did find slightly upsetting was the fact that Mildred is 31 and already a pitied spinster and ‘set in her ways’ – was it really like this for single women over 25 in the 50’s?! If so, thank goodness I was born thirty odd years later – otherwise I might as well give up and get myself a cat now!!!


  1. Bravo! I’m so pleased you enjoyed it – I hadn’t realized you were ready to write her off…
    I recently read Crampton Hodnet. See http://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/crampton-hodnet-by-barbara-pym/ Oh my gosh, how funny! I loved it, just as I’ve loved all her books (I think I’ve read around 6, including Excellent Women, when I saw you were reading it, I thought, she’s in for a treat). Ruby

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Ruby – I’m really looking forward to reading more and I shall look out for Crampton Hodnet – great review!

  2. AJ says:

    I’m genuinely thrilled that you liked this book — I adore Pym and I’m happy you still have more of her works ahead. I enjoyed No Fond Return of Love quite a bit … and I just … after several years of looking for a copy … found a first edition of the only one hers I hadn’t read, The Sweet Dove Died. Most writers I don’t care about first editions but this is a prized possession.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh AJ, what a wonderful find! Lucky you! I’m glad I have so many great books to come! 🙂

  3. Leticia says:

    I’m interested to see what you think of her more serious novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died, both of which I absolutely love. But of course, Excellent Women will always be my favorite, followed closely by A Glass of Blessings — though Some Tame Gazelle contains some pretty big guffaws, and No Fond Return of Love is delightful!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes I’ve heard her later novels are a little more bittersweet…I’m intrigued to read those. All the ones you mention I am desperate to get to now – let’s hope my charity shop has more Pyms in soon!

  4. Get a cat I say. I like cats. So so very glad you enjoyed Excellent Women. It is a fab book and I was lucky enough to read it first so I am hooked on Pym now…though I confess I have been “discovering” Elizabeth Taylor of late and let Pym fall off the TBR stack. Beautiful post…loved the piccie.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hehehehe! I’m not a fan of cats really – more a dog person! 🙂 Oh Elizabeth Taylor is also well worth discovering…you don’t need to worry about temporarily abandoning Pym for her! 🙂

  5. And now you are my favorite blogger – I like that you were willing to give a writer a chance (it’s hard work writing) and did come back to report honestly. Stay true . . .

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh how lovely! Thank you! 🙂

      1. Most welcome 🙂

  6. Lyn says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed EW, it’s one of my favourite books. I never tire of reading it. Mildred is my heroine, I think of her every time I clean the bath & always put extra cheese in my macaroni cheese because I think of her dinner with the Malorys. I’ve enjoyed all Pym’s novels though I’m still holding on to Quartet in Autumn for a rainy day. My favourites are EW, Glass of Blessings & Some Tame Gazelle. I agree that Mildred’s spinster status at 31 is a bit of a worry, it’s almost a Victorian attitude but I think Mildred moves in old-fashioned circles so hopefully it wasn’t everyone’s attitude in the 50s.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha, I love that you do that with your macaroni! Mildred is my heroine too – I loved her and could identify with her a lot! I’m really looking forward to exploring more Pym…and also finding out more about her life. I bet she was a fascinating woman.

  7. My past experiences with Pym have been challenging but this was always the book everyone recommended as the one that would make me love her. I still haven’t tried it yet but I’m so glad to see it did the trick for you! It sounds absolutely wonderful and Mildred sounds magnificently likeable. As for the spinister status at such a young age, I have to say that I’ve definitely experienced some of that already, though happily I haven’t yet had any runs in with smug-marrieds!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Claire, I know you would love this! It would make you laugh so much – you MUST try it! I’m glad you haven’t suffered at the hands of the smug married brigade…I just avoid contact now!!

  8. drharrietd says:

    Thank goodness you have fallen in love with Pym. This is such an interesting review as you, probably quite rightly, focus on the rather sad aspects of the story and only bring in the wit at the end — whereas for me, Pym is one of the funniest writers going. I have had embarrassing experiences on trains when I’ve been unable to help laughing aloud when reading one of her novels. I have loved everything of hers I’ve read and re-read (including Jane and Prudence) and look forward to hearing what you think of some other of her books.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Harriet, I hadn’t noticed I was dwelling on the sad bits…those must have been the parts I most identified with. I did also find it hilarious and laugh out loud funny but I suppose that didn’t come across as much in my post! I am really excited to read more and especially her later novels as I know they are a little different in tone. I’m so glad I gave her another go!

  9. Oh, I am in the middle of reading this… Mildred, Helena, Rocky and Everard Bone have left the Lecture and are about to go for a meal. I enjoyed your post very much, and thus far I agree with your comments, but I am reserving my final judgement until completion. I have come late to Barbara Pym, but have so far read No Fond Return of Love and Less than Angels, and loved them. I like her with, and the understatedness (is that a word? If not it should be) and the fact that life does go on.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I am so glad you’re enjoying this so much, Chris! Isn’t it fantastic?! Yes – Pym is very understated and life does go on – no melodrama, no fantasy – just reality. Sometimes you need that and Pym is perfect at it!

  10. I haven’t read any Barbara Pym, but your review certainly makes me want to rush out and get a copy of this book. It sounds delightful!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Miranda, you must rush out now – it’s magnificent!

  11. Stacy says:

    I am so glad you gave her a second chance. I loved EW but my favorites are Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle… so good it was hard to read anything after for a few days because I knew whatever I did read next couldn’t measure up.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Stacy, such high praise!! I can’t wait to read Some Tame Gazelle now!!

  12. Chrissy says:

    I read and reviewed this for the Virago Reading Week last year (was it last year?) and passed on Alexander McCall Smith’s recommendation:
    ‘One of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century’.
    Well! I am still speechless thinking about this. Can it be true?

    Rachel, please don’t identify too closely with Mildred. You’re far too educated and joyful and enegetic and gorgeous. I bet that in 10 years time your personal world will have changed beyond all recognition, macaroni cheese and comforting cups of tea a thing of the past – well, perhaps not the tea part…

    1. bookssnob says:

      I must have read your review, Chrissy – I’ll have to go back and read it again now I’ve read it and can appreciate your thoughts more. I think Alexander McCall Smith is perfectly accurate – it is indeed endearingly amusing and I can think of few – if any – 20th c novels I have read to better it on that account.

      Oh Chrissy, thank you! How lovely you are! Don’t worry, I haven’t consigned myself to the top shelf just yet – some days I feel more like that than others but overall I remain hopeful that the right man will turn up one day! 😉

  13. Liz says:

    I’ve not read Pym yet but wish to take issue with the sentiment “She is on the periphery of everyone’s lives – necessary to no one … .” For years, women quietly kept alive and functioning the great institutions. Many now are run by “professionals” whose salaries beggar belief.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Liz…that’s actually a quote from the book – Mildred says it about herself! I certainly don’t agree with it!

  14. Lovely post, Rachel! And I agree, you should get a cat right now because cats are delightful and so are single friends. I cried when my last single friend got married, because it meant no more delightful drop-in evening with footloose friends. I still miss that.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hehehe thanks Mumsy! Glad to know that some people appreciate us single girls and don’t just want to pity us!!

  15. Stepping My Way to Bliss says:

    Stop! I can’t keep up. I have bought “The Shooting Party” for my eReader but it has to wait until I finish “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (not a short book). And now you have this one to esteem so greatly and I can’t find it for my eReader (and I don’t think my library has it in book form either). I found a “study guide” of “Excellent Women” but the description does not say if it includes the story. I might have to buy from Great Britain to get this one some day. ~~Bliss

    1. bookssnob says:

      Sorry Bliss! I just can’t help finding all these great books! 😉 I’m so pleased to hear you have The Shooting Party waiting – definitely get to that first! Try the Book Depository for Pym – Virago recently republished all of her books in snazzy new covers so they should have her in stock.

  16. Melwyk says:

    This book is next in my Barbara Pym stack and I am now looking forward to it even more. I did enjoy Crampton Hodnet a lot — very funny. And I also agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s view of Barbara Pym; funnily enough, the more Pym I read the more I see her influence in his writing.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh you must get to it as soon as you can! I’m looking forward to reading more and I will certainly be putting her on my birthday list! That’s interesting – I haven’t actually read anything of his but I know plenty of people who have and find him very witty and charming so they certainly have those qualities in common!

  17. Mystica says:

    I read this sometime ago and liked it very much! Not been able to get to her other books though.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Glad you’ve had a chance to read it, Mystica, and I hope some Pyms turn up in your neck of the woods soon! 🙂

  18. Fuchsia says:

    hi Rachel,
    I am so glad that you loved EW – BP is one of my most favourite authors – I have read her books many times. One of the best things about BP’s books (out of so many) is that main characters in one book will be fleetingly mentioned in another book.
    Spolier alert!
    In “Less than Angels” a character makes a reference to Mildred’s marriage to Everard Bone and their trip to Africa! That’s why you need to read them all!

    Keep up the good work Rachel – i love your reviews

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Fuschia! Yes I had heard that characters get mentions in other books – I love the idea of that! And of Mildred and Everard marrying – briliant! Can’t wait to read that one now!

      Thank you very much – I’m so glad to hear that! 🙂

  19. Lucy says:

    Oooh, another book that I wish I could read right now! Mildred sounds like my kind of heroine! I love the little details you included about ordinary, everyday life…all those little things really bring the book and its characters to life and make it so easy for us to identify with it.

    In Korea, women are still expected to marry by age 30 and most seem to get extremely stressed and worried if this doesn’t happen. It’s kind of terrifying to witness that kind of dread and intense pressure, eek!

    Is the picture you posted the book cover? I love it, haha 😉

    1. bookssnob says:

      Lucy you have to get this sent over to you! It is very much about the everyday and it is so endearing because of it!

      Oh my goodness, those poor women! What a burden that must be…and I wonder whether many women marry someone they don’t love just to get that ring on their fingers?

      No it’s not, but the real book cover is very pretty as well! 🙂

      1. Sarahct says:

        It is sadly still true that marriage in Korea is a mix of crush, well-calculated balance sheet, and settling. One of the many things I love about England, or at least it’s novels, is the ideal of love marriage they hold so highly, more so than the French or even the American.

  20. Alex says:

    Wow, talk about a raving review! I’ve had Excellent Women in the wish-list for ages – every once in a while someone on the book blogosphere writes a glowing post 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      Well Alex, I think it’s about time you listened and got yourself a copy, hey?! 😉

  21. I knew it! I’m so glad you loved it. I put it off forever and then finally read it last year. The only sad thing is that I can never read it again for the first time.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I am too! I already want to re-read it! So glad you are a fan as well – leave it a few years and you can read it again with fresh eyes, don’t worry!

  22. Deb says:

    Late to the party (as usual), but I’m sooooo glad you went back and gave Pym another try. I rank EXCELLENT WOMEN as my favorite of her novels. I love the detail about the brands of toilet paper each of the neighbors buys to stock the communal bathroom and how the quality reflects an aspect of the neighbor’s personality. Helena provides an “inferior” product. When first married (in 1956) my parents lived in a flat with a shared bathroom. My mum can still make me laugh to this day with stories about that.

    BTW, I don’t think of this as a spoiler (and I think I’ve posted this before), but in a later book there is an implication that Mildred has married Everard Bone.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes! That toilet paper bit was hilarious!! I can’t imagine having to share a bathroom (outside of student digs of course) – awful! I’d love to hear some of your mum’s stories!

      I love that they got married…good for Mildred! She was far too young and fun to sign her life away!

  23. I just saw this post and I am so happy that you read this book and liked it. “Excellent Women” is one of my very favorite books and I have read it many times. It’s funny and filled with truths about human nature, always reminding me of Jane Austen for those reasons. And I think it is her best book.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Sunday! Yes- Pym is so Austenian and so true about people – she has a real gift. I’m delighted that I gave her another go and I’m so pleased that you love her too!

  24. I waited until I finished Excellent Women until I read your thoughts about it – I agree with everything you’ve said! It has become when of my all-time favorite books, so funny and heartfelt I can’t stand it. I absolutely adore Mildred – she has become an example and an inspiration for me. I just turned thirty *cough* eight and am unmarried with no prospects in sight. I hope I can be as excellent a woman as Mildred is.
    I do have two cats and I love them to bits! They are great companions 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      Glad you’ve had a chance to read it and that you enjoyed it so much Anbolyn! Being unmarried is nothing to be ashamed of and I love how full Mildred’s life is portrayed as being – you take her as an example! And 38 is not old enough to be an Excellent Woman – not by a longshot!! I wish I could love cats…I am definitely a dog girl! I wouldn’t be a very good spinster cat lady! 😉

  25. Sarahct says:

    Thank you all for loving Pym. I thought I was mad loving her books so much. Last year I did a marathon exclusive Pym for 2 months and devoured all her books I could get my hands on. I was so sad when I finished all her novels, and my head was still wandering parishes of London, small villages, and Oxford streets. I was so hesitant to move on to other authors, but thankfully I discovered Dorothy Sayers soon. Bravo to our foremothers of the modern woman. I am tearing up just to think of what they had achieved for us.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m so glad you discovered Pym and adore her so much. You should try D E Stevenson for more gentle, humorous stories (though without the acerbic wit of Pym), or if you want something very English and more domestic focused, you should try Dorothy Whipple. In fact, go to Persephone Books’ website – you’ll be spoiled for choice!

  26. Tanya van Hasselt says:

    Reading your review of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women was the next best thing to reading the book itself! She’s been a favourite author for years – many mountains of ironing have been done while listening to Juliet Stevenson and others reading her work on audiobooks – somehow an appropriate activity…
    Further pleasure ahead: looking down your list of reviews, I can see so many other authors I love, above all, Dorothy Whipple. Thank you!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the reviews, and it’s wonderful that you’ve found me as there are many of us who love these authors and love to talk about them – welcome!! 🙂

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