Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Another blogger recommended this book, and as usual I can’t remember who it was! So please remind me in the comments. I wanted to re-read your review after I finished it.

Excellent Women, written in the early 50’s, is almost excellent and certainly very good. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is a 30 year old spinster whose calm life doing good at church and at a society dedicated to the assistance of impoverished gentlewomen, is disrupted by the arrival of tumultuous neighbours who move into the flat below hers.

Helen Napier is a messy, cigarette smoking academic. Her husband Rocky (short for Rockingham) is a handsome, debonair naval officer whose service consisted of arranging the social life of his superior in picturesque Italy. Their marriage is on the rocks (pun intended), each of them appealing to Miss Lathbury, as an excellent woman, to clean up their messes, figuratively and literally.

This is the thrust of the novel, a depiction of single women as, despite sometime loneliness and a yearning for love, the cleaners-up and protectors of civil society, the proof-readers and index makers of books and life.

Clear-sighted and brutally honest with herself, Miss Lathbury is tactful with others and a witty narrative voice as she comments on herself, her neighbours, the vicar who is ensared by the lovely and mysterious widow, his flappable sister, or the stiffly reserved anthropologist Everard Bone.

I wanted the ending to be different, feeling the author had led me a merry dance, and closed the book with a tiny harrumph. But I still enjoyed it thoroughly. Reading about Barbara Pym in Wikipedia, I can see why she ended it as she did–without giving too much away, I’ll just say it’s based on personal experience.

Sadly, after a successful early career she wasn’t able to get her books published for 14 years, from 1963 to 1977, until more famous writers (including Philip Larkin) championed her work. I’m glad to know that the last few years of her life saw the publication and positive reception of several new books.

Excellent Women is a delightful read for a grey day.

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8 thoughts on “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. I am a big fan of Barbara Pym because her eye is so acerbically brilliant and she often picks on the academic community, which gives me much pleasure. For such a funny writer, though, she often chooses frustrating endings, or at least endings in which few people win or make headway. I’ve written about her before, but an overall view of her writing, I think (it was a while back now). I have seen another review of this book just recently and cannot of course, think where. I’ll get back to you if I remember.

  2. Sounds like a great set-up, actually… spinsters have traditionally had a very interesting role in society and family, I think. I wonder if very much has changed for them now? Must get hold of this one.

  3. I’ve been a Barbara Pym fan for decades, and I can’t remember who recommended her books to me either! But I love her wit and her sharp observations about people.
    You’ve made me want to read this one again…

  4. Litlove, I wonder if that reflected her own experience or her time?

    Di, it’s a great setup and someone should write an essay about spinsters in fiction. I know there have been good non-fiction books on that.

    Becca, what is your favourite, do you remember?

    1. If I ever get the opportunity, I might explore the trope further myself… it’s really caught my interest, so thanks!!

  5. Yes, her endings are rather strange. I’m not sure I’d call them frustrating, but they are “quiet” if that makes sense. In both books of hers I’ve read recently – Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love – the ending doesn’t appear to be the end of an arc, so to speak, but almost an arbitrary moment in a long line of similar possible endings. I don’t know if I’ve explained myself very well…

    In any case, I have quickly become a Pym fam and will read all of her books at some point. So interesting to compare her to Iris Murdoch, who was writing at much the same time.

    1. That’s a great explanation, I do see what you mean Michelle. I want to read another by her.

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