"Excellent Women" is one of Barbara Pyms richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergymans 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 neighborsanthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next doorthe novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.
The excellent women of the title are the intelligent, accommodating, repressed women of the 1950s who were regularly taken advantage of by men. The protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, certainly falls into that category as she goes about her solitary life, working at her little part-time job as a sort of social worker for impoverished elderly gentlewomen and volunteering for her church. But when Rockingham and Helena Napier move into the flat below hers, her world is turned upside down as she gets a birds eye view of what life looks like for someone who is not among the excellent women because Helena is an anthropologist and her life is certainly quite different from any other woman that Mildred knows. Yet even these people seem to take advantage of the well-meaning, always accommodating Mildred. And when a young widow moves into town and makes a move for Mildred’s unmarried minister, things suddenly turn ugly very quickly.
The beauty of the novel is the way that Pym presents and clarifies the little scenes that take place in Mildred’s seemingly hum-drum life. She seems to have three men who might prove to be husband material, if only they weren’t so, well, needy. Pym’s writing manages to explain things in the most delightful way:
”I sat quietly, sometimes turning my head, and it was on one of these occasions that, to my surprise and dismay, I found myself looking straight at Everard Bone, who was coming in at that moment. He looked back at me without any sign of recognition. I suppose I was indistinguishable from many another woman in a neutral winter coat and plain hat and I was thankful for my anonymity. But he was unmistakable. His tall figure, his well-cut overcoat, his long nose and his fair hair were outstanding in this gathering of mediocrity. I felt that I could almost understand the attraction he might have for the kind of person who is drawn to the difficult, the unusual, even the unpleasant.” (Page 43)
Did I mention that the excellent women always blame themselves for just about everything? No one else ever seems to be blame-worthy. I wonder if this is where the British stiff upper lip originated. I don’t know any excellent women. Most of the women I know are independent thinking women who would not hesitate to put a man in his place. But I know there are a few of these excellent women left today, left-overs from the 50s who resemble Mildred and her friends in Barbara Pym’s novel. I’ll read a few more of her novels this year and then I will have to get a bio of her because I read where she actually took a lover or two. Very unlike her heroine Mildred.
"it was not excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up."
The novel's plot revolves around several characters in Mildred's life including Helena and Rocky Napier, a couple who live in the flat below Mildred; Everard Bone, an anthropologist; Julian Malory, the local vicar; and Allegra Gray, a woman who moves to the area and wins Julian's heart. Through these characters Barbara Pym portrays English suburban life, with a hearty dose of irony. Her clever turns of phrase poke fun at English norms and customs, and at the everyday doings of people, everywhere:
- After politely offering to help with a bit of sewing: "I was a little dismayed, as we often are when our offers of help are taken at their face value, and I set to work rather grimly, especially as Mrs. Gray herself was not doing anything at all."
- On being asked to do someting intolerable, Mildred reacts: "The room suddenly seemed very hot and I saw Mrs. Gray's face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot colour"
- Describing the arrival of furniture movers: "There were three of them, two cheerful and strong-looking, and the third, paerhaps as befitted his position as foreman, wizened and melancholy and apparently incapable of carrying anything at all."
Reading Excellent Women was an enjoyable immersion in English culture. I know I will be visiting Pym's world again and again.
This particular edition has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith which is also an excellent sign as I'm very fond of his sense of humour. He sums up the world of the book very cogently by describing it as "a world of shortages and genteel drabness". Excellent Women is in fact the perfect tonic for these austere times. For our book-club this year we have decided to swap books for Christmas as a nod towards belt tightening. Some lucky gal will be snaffling this treasure tomorrow night.
So what's it about? Well it's about living in a small community where everyone knows who you are and thinks they know where you will end up - including you - only you sub-consciously wish it might be different. The story is set after the war when, no doubt, a lot of eligible young men were knocked off and there is a surplus of eligible young women - or spinsters as some unkind people used to call them.
Mildred is our heroine of sorts. She provides a wry commentary of the goings-on of her new neighbours, the Napiers, and the disturbance they cause to the delicate balance that is ultimately village life, even in the big smoke - London. When you discover that the lead male "interest' Mr Napier's christian name is Rockingham, you know you're in for a treat. Mildred is a clergyman's daughter and spends much of her time with the local vicar and his sister organising the odd bazaar and, before she can object, the rocky domestic life of the Napiers.
As McCall-Smith says, much of the joy in this book is to be gained from a reflection of our own human foibles. Chapter Two for example concludes with the following observation...
"I hoped the Napiers were not going to keep late hours and have noisy parties. Perhaps I was getting spinsterish and 'set' in my ways, but I was irritated at having been woken. I stretched out my hand towards the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comforting bedside reading. My hand might have chosen Religio Medici, but I was rather glad that it had picked out Chinese Cookery and I was soon soothed into drowsiness." Well I may not have Chinese Cookery or Religio Medici for that matter in my collection, but I am guilty of taking a good craft book to bed, secure in the knowledge that I will never complete one tenth of the projects therein but deriving great satisfaction from considering them nonetheless.
There are so many wonderful lines in this work. Barbara Pym celebrates the ordinariness of life - the sheer, at times, tedium of existence and how we invent ways to deal with it.....shall I share one more quote? Here Mildred is describing Everard Bone, the object of Mrs Napier's unrequited affection....
"He was certainly very clever and handsome, too, in his own way, but there was no warmth or charm about his personality. I began imagining him as a clergyman and decided that he would make a good one. His rather forbidding matter would be useful to him. I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced."
Fabulous stuff! Excellent Women - you know from the get-go what kind of book it will be and sometimes that is a very comforting place to be indeed.
This is one of those books.
To start with "the bottom line" - I enjoyed this book very much. After my first reading I gave it a preliminary rating of 4-1/2 stars. I knew it was good, I knew I enjoyed it and yet I wasn't quite ready and able to explain why.
So I gave it a little rest (48 hours) and picked it up again.
Now, after reading it a second time I have decided that it rates a full 5 stars. I still don't feel that I can adequately explain all the reasons I found it to be excellent or capture all the thoughts reading it sparked.
I need to read it at least one more time so before sitting down to type this preliminary review I ordered a copy of my own so I can return the one I have to the library.
Why did I so enjoy this book? First of all, Pym's writing style was unobtrusively pleasant. It vaguely evokes the feeling of Austen without reading like a pastiche. Pym's voice is not the voice of Austen but one does feel a similarity of taste and tone between the two.
The plot of Excellent Women is at the same time like all of Austen's books and none of them. The protagonist (the "voice" of the book), Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried woman in her early thirties who lives on a small income after the death of her parents. She is, like so many of Austen's heroines, a gentlewoman of modest means. Lathbury herself notices that though she lives in London her life is very much as it was when she lived in a more rural setting. Most of her interactions are with a rather circumscribed number of people. Gossip, cooking, cleaning, visiting with others, planning church events and shopping fills her life and the lives of many of those around her.
In many ways the world in which Lathbury lives would be familiar to Austen and yet in some crucial ways it is very different. While those around Lathbury may gossip about her "opportunities" and presume that she would accept a proposal from the appropriate man she herself shows little urgency, let alone desire, to marry. She is wryly aware of her attraction to some of the men she meets but these are mild and passing feelings. She is aware of the woeful financial circumstances of some members of her own class (in fact her job involves working with distressed gentlewomen) and is aware that some day she may find herself in a similar circumstance. These financial realities do not seem to have an impact on her interactions with men.
Unlike the unmarried daughters of deceased clergymen in Austen's day Lathbury and her contemporaries feel no shame at holding down jobs. They may, like Lathbury's friend Dora, work as teachers, but they are not reduced to being governesses tucked away in cold and badly lit attics. They can travel freely, they can have male friends and they can even, if they so choose, have careers.
What Pym highlights in this book is the state of male/female relationships at a pivotal moment in time. Men still assume that they will be looked after (a point about which Lathbury has frequent wry thoughts) but they have lost much of their authority and power and seem for the most part of have retained their privileges through societal inertia rather than through any efforts of their own. Pym (through Lathbury) observes English life as the changes in class structure and male/female dynamics begins to unfold.
For any reader who has wondered after finishing Sense and Sensibility "what would happen to Elinor and Marianne today" Excellent Women is an excellent answer.
Right there we have a pretty good description of what this book is about, and the dry , witty humour with which it is written.
Excellent Woman was written in Britain 1952, not that long after WW2, when I suppose there were plenty of " spinsters" which is the case of our narratator, Miss Mildred Lathbury.
On one level, Excellent Women follows the every day life of Miss Mildred Lathbury in 1950's Britain. Mildred stays busy with other spinsters, near romances involving both herself and other spinsters. Her everyday life is that of attending church services, church jumble sales and light discussions of spinsterhood vs marriage, and working part time for" impoverished gentlewomen". Life grows a little more exciting when a not so happy , somewhat eccentric married couple rents the flat below Miss Lathbury. There is also a subplot involving Mildred's best friend, fellow spinster Winifred Napier, sister of the local vicar, Julian Napier - both of them also unmarried.
One another level Excellent Women is really a witty social observation/ commentary on many subjects of the time.
Themes covered are spinsterhood versus marriage, the early stirrings of Feminism, Class Distinctions, and the " Anglo- Catholic Church" versus the Roman Catholic Church.
I really enjoyed reading this gentle and wry look into Mildred Lathams world. This is not a book with much action or a quick moving plot - it's a slow , gently humourous read of social commentary.
One quote by Mildred Latham is this: " I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in the chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like like that for most of us - the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies;the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and the dramatic love affairs of history of fiction. That quote really summarizes the subject matter of the book on many levels .
I really enjoyed this witty social commentary and look forward to reading another book by Barbara Pym.
Oh that was terrible but really this is one I'll go back to when I need comfort.
Excellent Women is the third Barbara Pym novel I have read and, again I must say why, why why, have I taken so long to find her? The plain simple truth is, if not for Library Thing, I could have left this earth without reading about her.
The novel is written in first person and though I do get vibes from scholars that this is a sort of cheat, I enjoy a first person narrative. Writing a book is an arduous job regardless first or third person or second for that matter.
Never was I lost in this novel and never was I in a hurry. That for me is an so comforting. I've read books where I felt I was careening toward the ending, that the ending was the ultimate and often those novels are disappointing.
Not so with Excellent Women, it is truly a wonderful Sunday afternoon read, anytime of the week.
Do not misunderstand, it is not frivolous book, in many ways it is hysterically funny but in a way that is heart wrenching too.
Well worth having this one on the shelf.
Review written July 2008
When an exciting young couple moves into the flat below Mildred's, she is drawn to Helena, the brash, independent anthropologist, and her husband, Rocky, whose charm has turned the heads of many young women. Even though the Napier's marriage is precarious and slightly scandalous, Mildred wonders if she isn't missing something in not being married. She likes the attention from Rocky, even though she knows he is only flirting, as he does with every woman. And she is slightly disappointed when the young minister at her church falls for a sexually attractive newcomer. Everyone assumes Mildred wants to be married. Does she?
The book was published in 1952, a transitional time for women in England and elsewhere. Now that the men have returned from war, wives like Helena and unmarried women like Mildred must find a way to accommodate a return to old roles, but with new sensibilities. It's this search for a new place in society that creates the tension in the novel. Must women choose to be either married or be an "excellent woman"? Or is there another choice, a way to be an independent woman who does not feel less actualized because she is unmarried?
Although others have found the book to be amusing, I found it to be melancholy. Mildred is not happy with her life, nor is she deeply unsatisfied, instead she lives an unexceptional life with quiet dignity, occasionally wondering if things could have been different, and if they had, would she have been happier? I wanted something more for her, perhaps more than she wanted for herself. I was left wondering if contentment was enough of a satisfaction in life.
This story is set in the 1950s & our protagonist, Mildred, leads a quiet life. She is single, in her 30s & unattached. She lives off a small pension from her clergyman father's estate. She works part time for the Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen and does good works for the church. She is an 'excellent woman'.
Mildred is friends with the vicar, Julian, & his sister Winifred. Life becomes much more interesting for Mildred when Mrs. Napier moves into the flat that shares her floor's bathroom. Mrs. Napier is an anthropologist & is awaiting the return of her husband, Rockingham, who is returning from service in the Navy. Mildred gets involved in their lives when she realizes that Mrs. Napier appears to be having an affair with another anthropologist, Everard. She initially thinks of Rockingham as the perfect husband and Everard as being sketchy and difficult.
Another situation Mildred is pulled into is the new tenant at the vicarage, Mrs. Grey, who seems to have her sights set on Julian. Mildred does not approve. She thinks that Mrs. Grey is being deceptive.
Mildred slowly picks her way through these entanglements and comes to grips with her own feelings for the three men in her life. She begins to realize what she wants for herself. The ending appears to be a bit unexpected but is quite fitting with our understanding of Mildred.
This is a quiet, charming story of a woman making her own way in the world and I quite liked it.
The book provides a glimpse at an interesting period in English history, the years shortly after World War II when the country was recovering from the effects of the war, many goods were still scarce and rationing was still in force. The middle class still clung to traditional social roles and customs, although it was becoming apparent that society was on the brink of change. While her circumstances apparently had not changed at the end of the novel, there are inklings that Mildred's outlook on life had begun to alter by the book's end.
This book couldn't have been written even ten or fifteen years later. In some ways Mildred was trapped by the social expectations and obligations of the era, but the upheavals of the 1960s erased many of the former social conventions. On the surface this is a rather light novel, but I think it is one that will require repeated readings to appreciate all of its undercurrents.
So, when a woman of a quite different sort moves into the flat beneath that of Mildred Lathbury, Mildred is jolted out of the world that she has always inhabited. For Helena Napier is most certainly not an 'excellent woman', she is an anthropologist with lax ideas about housework and cooking. And when Helena's rather dashing husband Rocky arrives Mildred's world is jolted even more.
And it's in Mildred's attempt to assist with the marital difficulties of Helena and her husband, and to assist also in the affairs of the vicar and his sister that the timeless nature of the book comes out. Mildred is the sort of person who others continually expect to listen to their troubles and to help them out with their personal difficulties, and that people will often take advantage of someone like that certainly hasn't changed.
This is the first Barbara Pym I have read, but it definitely won't be the last.
Cosy with undertones of realism, and an ending I loved because it wasn't 'tidy'. A perfect comfort read - light but not unintelligent. I was still in the mood to keep reading long after I'd finished, and was sorry there was no more to read. This is my first brush with Barbara Pym, and will certainly not be my last.
I in particular was taken by the tea references, for instance Mildred's making tea for everyone as a comfort for others despite not wanting to be known as that kind of person, and the strength of tea varying depending on the situation.
I certainly recommend this one to Anglophiles and satire fans alike, and look forward to reading more of Pym's novels.
Mildred Lathbury is a middle class, thirty-something spinster in post-war London. Her time is spent working with elderly and distressed gentlewomen and at her parish church. The book follows the twists and turns of her relationships with (among others) Father Malory the vicar and his sister, her new neighbours Mr and Mrs Napier, and the newly arrived clergyman's widow Mrs Gray.
The subtle satire, the gentle, dry, self-deprecating humour of Miss Lathbury and the phenomenal character sketches absolutely made this book. The writing is beautiful, the plot twists are tiny but significant, the profound commentary on human nature is deftly slipped in to telling effect - and the cumulative effect is that a story about the ordinary becomes something extraordinary.
I hadn't even finished reading this library book before I'd ordered a copy for my own bookshelf, and added several more titles by Barbara Pym to my wishlist.
Less impressively, the wife of the President of the Learned Society always attends its meetings, knits, and drops off to sleep. Mildred asks Everard:
‘Did she work with him in the field?’
‘Good Heavens, no! She knows nothing at all about anthropology.’
‘Didn’t she even do the index or proofreading for one of his books? You know what it often says in a preface or dedication—“To my wife, who undertook the arduous duty of proof-reading” or making the index.’
‘She may have done that. After all, it’s what wives are for.’
After that, we should not be surprised (or affronted) by the dialogue in which Mildred, the novel’s heroine, is invited to dinner by Everard, an anthropologist. She asks how his book is progressing, and he tells her:
‘I have just had some of the proofs and then of course the index will have to be done. I don’t know how I’m going to find time to do it,’ and proceeds to ask her to undertake the task. She protests: ‘But I don’t know how to do these things,’ but he persuades her, and she reflects -- ‘Yes, it would make a nice change. 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? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully ...'
Barbara Pym is wonderful writer, opening a little corner of war-effort England to the reader. More than that, she weaves a delightfully complicated story of love, romance, and rejection. As I read through the book, I felt certain that it would end in a certain way. I told myself that if it did indeed end how I thought, I'd lose all hope in romantic fiction. However, the ending was not what I expected at all, so my hope lives on!
Excellent Women is now one of my favourite books, and I can't wait to read more by Barbara Pym.
I'm going to work my way through all her novels.
I suppose as an anthropological study of single gentlewomen in post-war London, it holds some interest. There is a lot of subtext going on, but that is about all. If you enjoy this type of story, sort of Jane Austenish, but with even less action than a Jane Austen book, I'm sure this is well written and even witty and clever.
The language is restrained and subtle and many-shaded. But it is also funny with hints of rebellion. And never boring.
Conventions here are just the mask behind which the story unfolds.
Mildred learns early on that Rocky (Rockingham - what a name) beguiles everyone, particularly women, and she routinely cautions herself whenever she leans toward being too smitten. "I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.” Because she is such an excellent woman, Mildred soon finds Rocky's wife Helena confiding their marital problems to her, and Mildred in turn does what she can to help them reconcile. Due to their friendship she attends lectures at the Learned Anthropological Society, and there meets Helena's fellow anthropologist and reluctant romantic target Everard Bone. Everard is handsome but awkward, and comes to appreciate Mildred. Meanwhile, the conscientious and honorable Father Malory starts to be drawn to a clergyman's widow named Allegra Gray, who is suspiciously well-dressed and accomplished at getting her own way. This of course is an affront to the parish members who plan that Malory marry Mildred. Eventually Mildred must help Father Malory with his romantic difficulties, as well as helping the Napiers.
Mildred's life isn't lived on a large canvas; instead, it seems like one we see in some way all around us. There are small disappointments, like being viewed as an excellent woman. “'You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.' I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.” There are small pleasures, often involving 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.” As a person living alone, she often derives meaning from her participation in the lives of others. "I pulled myself up and told myself to stop these ridiculous thoughts, wondering why it is that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all.”
This book has an undercurrent of humor throughout and, as Richard has observed, Pym is nonjudgmental in her incisive character portrayals. While life can be disappointing at times, it has its satisfactions, and overall is well worth living. The writing really isn't Austen-like, but the comparisons probably derive from Pym's wit and acute powers of observation. Having said that, there were moments of Austen-like reading bliss, like this one: “There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of our better instincts,we long to know about them.” Many thanks to Bonnie for convincing me to try Pym. I'll be reading more.