Originally published: 1952 (This edition 2008)
Author: Barbara Pym
Published by: Virago
Length: 304 pages
Reading dates: 11-15 October 2021
Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, though, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – and especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially when Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym’s world at its funniest and most touching.
I’ve recently decided to collect some of the Virago Modern Classics series and I loved the cover on this one so treated myself to it. As we all know, collecting and reading books can often be two very different things and this may well have languished on my book shelf merely looking pretty if Kerrie from I Loved Reading This hadn’t organised a Bookstagram readalong – this gave me all the encouragement I needed to pick it up.
Transported back to the time just after the 2nd World War we meet Mildred, a orphaned clergyman’s daughter who lives alone in her small flat. She is heavily involved in the church and their social events and works part time in an office dealing with impoverished gentlewomen. As the book begins she learns she will be getting new neighbours, the Napiers. Helena moves in first and the two women are very different. Helena’s husband Rocky is still serving in the Navy in Italy while she has recently being travelling around Africa in her role as an anthropologist. Very quickly, Mildred finds herself a part of their lives, dealing with their marital issues and Helena’s friendship with her colleague Everard Bone.
A lovely gentle read, Excellent Women is a story where not a great deal happens but we get to see what life was like after the 2nd World War, a time where there were a lack of men to marry and rationing was still in place. I loved Mildred as our narrator – there is humour in her voice as she expresses her thoughts about the other villagers and people she comes into contact with. She fully recognises the fact that people expect her to be married but she is unwilling to settle for her friend’s frankly awful brother or the local vicar with whom she is very good friends. I felt she was treated badly by some the people around her but she didn’t seem to mind and her observations were interesting.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mildred and I was sorry to see Excellent Women come to an end – I liked that there wasn’t a neat ending – we are still left wondering what the rest of Mildred’s life would be like but I had no doubt she would be just fine, whatever happens!
If you have this languishing on your TBR or fancy reading a book by Barbara Pym, I’d heartily recommend this!
About the author:
After studying English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, Barbara Pym served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II. From 1950 to 1961, she published six novels, but her 7th was declined by the publisher due to a change in the reading public’s tastes.
The turning point for Pym came with a famous article in the 1975 Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, nominated her as the most underrated writer of the century. Pym and Larkin had kept up a private correspondence over a period of many years. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another novel, The Sweet Dove Died, previously rejected by many publishers, was subsequently published to critical acclaim, and several of her previously unpublished novels were published after her death.
Pym worked at the International African Institute in London for some years, and played a large part in the editing of its scholarly journal, Africa, hence the frequency with which anthropologists crop up in her novels. She never married, despite several close relationships with men, notably Henry Harvey, a fellow Oxford student, and the future politician, Julian Amery. After her retirement, she moved into Barn Cottage at Finstock in Oxfordshire with her younger sister, Hilary, who continued to live there until her death in February 2005. A blue plaque was placed on the cottage in 2006. The sisters played an active role in the social life of the village.
Several strong themes link the works in the Pym “canon”, which are more notable for their style and characterisation than for their plots. A superficial reading gives the impression that they are sketches of village or suburban life, with excessive significance being attached to social activities connected with the Anglican church (in particular its Anglo-Catholic incarnation). However, the dialogue is often deeply ironic, and a tragic undercurrent runs through some of the later novels, especially Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died.