Monday, July 22, 2013

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I have just finished reading Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and found the novel amusing and insightful. Published in 1952, Excellent Women is written in the voice of Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried vicar's daughter living in a bed-sit in London. Mildred's voice in self-deprecatory but wry and insightful. As an unmarried lady, she ministers to the "distressed gentlewomen", helps out with church jumble sales and provides a listening ear and a cup of tea to friends and neighbours. She is an "excellent woman."

Unfortunately, others do not recognize that Mildred may have her own needs. Assumptions are made that, since she is unmarried, she has no purpose in her life but to care for others. No request is too great to be made of her. Mildred's own wistful ambivalence to her unmarried state leads to various romantic fantasies. Being needed or being used is very different from being loved. The "excellent" woman is often overlooked and under appreciated.

Excellent Women is one of those quiet novels that could easily be a BBC production or a Merchant Ivory movie. Domestic squabbles, maiden sisters, and quirky characters are the stuff of this book. Although it is a tale set in time before I was born, it made me ask myself, "What is an excellent woman?"

4 comments:

  1. Hmmm, although it sounds different enough, less depressing definitely, something of your review reminds me of Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Have you read this? If so, do you see the similarities I'm imagining?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read Judith Hearne years ago but there definitely are similarities. The foibles of "the genteel" British society are dealt with sympathetically in Excellent Women. There is a lot of humour in EW as Mildred, with her cups of tea, is an observer of the domestic lives of others. Definitely less depressing than Judith Hearne.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So glad you enjoyed one of my favorite books. This year is the centenary of the birth of Barbara Pym and many people are celebrating it by writing about their Barbara Pym books. There was a wonderful article recently in the New York Times Book Review. Excellent Women is my favorite, but I just reread A Glass of Blessings and enjoyed it. There are some laugh out loud moments. I love her books for their humor and their wry observations about human nature. She was a gem!

    ReplyDelete
  4. whoops...I meant to say "writing about their favorite Barbara Pym books."

    ReplyDelete