1952. Penguin. Paperback. 256 pages.
Recommendation from: Aarti
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is about a woman named Mildred Lathbury living in post-war London. Mildred is just over thirty, has never been married, works in charity, and is quite involved in her church. When a dashing, tempestuous couple move into the flat below hers, Mildred is drawn into their affairs (at their invitation).
The title of the book refers to the category of women that Mildred has been placed in. These “excellent women” are unmarried, and are expected to and condescendingly admired for performing domestic tasks for the church, for society, and for apparently hapless bachelors and neighbors. This might take the form of organizing a jumble sale, or mending curtains. Many times for Mildred, it takes the form of being dependable company for people who want to confide or who are bored.
I loved how well Pym captured the internal thoughts of Mildred. Mildred is wonderfully observant and self-aware, as seen in passages like this one (Dora and she used to be roommates):
As I moved about the kitchen getting out china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone. The jingle of the little beaded cover against the milk jug reminded me of Dora and her giggles, her dogmatic opinions and the way she took offence so easily. The little cover, which had been her idea, seemed to symbolize all the little irritations of her company, dear kind friend though she was. ‘It keeps out flies and dust,’ she would say, and of course she was perfectly right, it was only my perverseness that made me sometimes want to fling it away with a grand gesture.
Pym’s book is not championing “spinsterhood” or denigrating it – in Excellent Women, all the characters are kind of ridiculous in recognizably human ways, whether they are married or not. And Mildred herself vacillates between contentment with her life as it is and desire for something different, for something more romantic but not necessarily romance itself, if that makes sense.
I found it completely refreshing to read about an unmarried woman over thirty with no real romantic history and no romantic storyline in the book either . That’s my life, but it’s rarely the sort of life that gets the spotlight in stories. And while I read and enjoy romantic stories, they do hold a narrative tyranny that can become tiresome. I know so many women like me in real life but am hard pressed to find fictional protagonists like us. Being long-term single is not a homogeneous state of being or a more empty one – there are so many different life stories among my single friends and family members. Who is our Mildred Lathbury of the 21st century? Where can I find her story? (Hit me up with recommendations if you have a candidate or any other good non-romantic stories of never married women.)
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Aarti of Booklust – “I think it cut so close to home in some ways, and was so deeply emotional in ways I did not expect, that I was taken aback. It was also such a wonderful, telling snapshot of London after the war on so many levels.”
Girl with Her Head in a Book – ” It’s a little bit Stella Gibbons-esque in the social satire, but it’s Mildred’s brisk attitude to all social situations that carries the novel.”
Hilary at Vulpes Libres – “Capable, staunch Mildred behaves like and is believed by all to be a detached observer of all this but she isn’t – by subtle means in the narrative we find out how deeply she too is involved, and where her inner desires (ruthlessly suppressed) might be taking her. It is all so delicately done, and all of a piece with her character as an ‘Excellent Woman’. ”
 I’m aware that a later Pym book alludes to Mildred’s marriage to another character from the novel, but I still contend that there is no romantic storyline for Mildred in Excellent Women.