Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women Pym

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 [1]. 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’. ”

[1] 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.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. This book is wonderful! I am huge Pym fan.

  2. I loved this book, too, and I really need to read more Pym. I thought she did a really nice job at showing what it’s like to be content and discontented at the same time–Mildred seems happy to go on as she is but curious as to whether she’d be happy in a different life. I rang true to me in a way that’s rare in fiction.

    And I’m hoping to see more ideas for stories of never-married women popping up here. I’ve shared mine on Twitter already, but will mention them here in case others are interested: Home by Marilynne Robinson, As We Are Now by May Sarton (pre-21st century, though), and crime novels.

  3. If this book was ever on my wish list, it fell down the list and got lost. Re-adding it so I can finally check it out!

  4. annabelletroy – This was my first Pym! I look forward to reading more by her.

    Teresa – That rang true for me as well.

    Cathy – It was! Thanks for stopping by!

    Kailana – oh my to-read list is out of control so I sympathize. 🙂

  5. aartichapati

    Oh, I’m so glad you read this! I agree whole-heartedly with you and with what Teresa says above. Single women really are left out of the literary landscape, at least my experience of being single and that of my friends’. And it would be nice to see our stories, too.

  6. This is one of my favorites! I just reread it a few weeks ago. I love how Pym portrays the minor joys and awkward moments in Mildred’s life.

  7. Oh dear, I am afraid that I did not love Excellent Women whe nI read it. I feel like a reading failure. I know how other people adore it, and Barbara Pym in general, but she just is not for me. (At least, as far as I can tell based on a small number of examples of her work.)I

  8. Aarti – I agree, those stories of single women don’t seem to be out there – very unexplored territory in fiction, considering that it is very much present in reality.

    Miss Bibliophile – Yes, Pym is really great at capturing the precise reasons why something is awkward that made it true to life.

    Jenny – Of course you’re not a reading failure. I wouldn’t pin Barbara Pym as an author likely to be universally loved. Also I know how it is to be in the minority of opinion on well-liked authors and books.

  9. Pingback: Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart: yay local history and single ladies of fiction | A Good Stopping Point

  10. I very much enjoyed Excellent Women.

    It’s interesting that, despite having previously published six (mostly successful) novels, Pym could not find a publisher during the 1960s and ’70s because the industry mantra was that ‘people don’t read stories like yours anymore.’

    Letty, one of the main characters in <i.Quartet, her first book after this hiatus, when England “rediscovered” her, muses: “She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, aging woman is of no interest whatever to the writers of modern fiction.”

    The more things change, the more they remain the same. {sigh}

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