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Excellent Women (Penguin Classics) by…

Excellent Women (Penguin Classics) (original 1952; edition 2006)

by Barbara Pym, A. N. Wilson (Introduction)

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1,490None4,963 (4.04)1 / 448
Title:Excellent Women (Penguin Classics)
Authors:Barbara Pym
Other authors:A. N. Wilson (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (2006), Edition: First Edition. 1 in number line, Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:English, Virago, Gender roles

Work details

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

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Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
This is one of those books that at once seems to manage to depict a world that has totally disappeared, while at the same time presenting a fairly timeless picture of human nature. The London of the 1950's in which Barbara Pym's excellent women live has certainly long gone, as have the excellent women themselves, or perhaps they have merely metamorphosed into a different form. But certainly a London where the daughters of vicars did little part-time jobs to supplement their meagre private incomes before returning home to a nondescript flat with a shared bathroom is no more. Nor, thank goodness, is the food: macaroni cheese (with the cheese being in very short supply), served with potatoes, and blancmange for dessert anyone? No, I didn't think so. But this is the world that Barbara Pym's excellent women inhabit: the middle-class women of a certain age (well, in reality over thirty) who have failed to find a husband but who form the backbone of the local parish. Church bazaars, jumble sales, and flower arrangements are all dependent on the work of these excellent women.

So, when a woman of a quite different sort moves into the flat beneath that of Mildred Lathbury, Mildred is jolted out of the world that she has always inhabited. For Helena Napier is most certainly not an 'excellent woman', she is an anthropologist with lax ideas about housework and cooking. And when Helena's rather dashing husband Rocky arrives Mildred's world is jolted even more.

And it's in Mildred's attempt to assist with the marital difficulties of Helena and her husband, and to assist also in the affairs of the vicar and his sister that the timeless nature of the book comes out. Mildred is the sort of person who others continually expect to listen to their troubles and to help them out with their personal difficulties, and that people will often take advantage of someone like that certainly hasn't changed.

This is the first Barbara Pym I have read, but it definitely won't be the last. ( )
2 vote SandDune | Mar 24, 2014 |
I couldn't stop thinking about The Woman Upstairs as I read this - despite the drastic differences in tone and, of course, in specifics, they both focus on women who are marginalized and, as a result, resentful. But Pym's version seems to me so much more subtle and thus interesting - Mildred's feelings are not shouted from every page but sometimes elude even her clear understanding.
  rmaitzen | Feb 7, 2014 |
I can't seem to break this humdrum 3 1/2 star rating pattern I have been in. Again, I heard greatness in relation to this author and this novel in particular and I guess I was a bit let down. Written in the 1950's though it seems much more turn of the century in terms of the ideas of gender roles, marriage, class, etc. I guess this was the time of post-War 'backlash' re: non-traditional feminine roles and the 'happy housewife,' etc. but the whole storyline was a bit depressing to me. A 30 something 'spinster' becomes enmeshed in the lives of her new neighbors and we figure out an 'excellent woman' is one who is practical, sensible, and takes care of the men in her life but is not the marrying type - like our poor protagonist who knows and essentially accepts her repressed state. Women who marry are really not worth their men - they typically just have a pretty face or are god-forbid pursuing an intelligent career and in their absent-minded pursuit of such they leave rings on the table from hot pots -- horrors!

I think that Pym was actually parodying these ideas in a way as Mildred often made fun of herself. The writing was quite good - simple but affecting dialogue and some cleverness as when Mildred decides not to tell us what her underwear hanging on the line looks like as it is just the kind of underwear we would imagine her wearing.

So short and sweet. Quite well-written. I would consider this author again but reminds me a bit an Anita Brookner, or a Penelope Lively. Good solid literature but somehow a bit too quiet to be especially powerful. ( )
  jhowell | Nov 30, 2013 |
Barbara Pym has the ability to make life's small tragedies poignant. She does this while preserving the comedy in quotidian situations. The "excellent women" referenced in the title are the sort of spinsters found in every mid-20th century English parish, expected to gladly do the unwanted work of the parish, and to fill the role of the saintly single woman. They are sans committments, and sans desires, at least that is the expectation. Mildred Lathbury is one of those excellent women. Through her church activities she becomes fond of the vicar, very fond indeed. As we enter Pym's comedy of manners Mildred's feelings deepen.

Pym is regularly described as a master of comedy, and indeed she is. There are many comedic elements in this story, and her characterizations are brilliant. It would be wrong, though, not to recognize that this comedy is paired with tragedy. I found the ending of the book to be deeply tragic. ( )
  lahochstetler | Nov 6, 2013 |
The central character in Excellent Women, Mildred, is unmarried and in her early 30s. The daughter of a deceased clergyman, she's a dedicated attendee at the local High Anglican Church and indispensable to its leader, her friend Father Malory, as well as to his sister Winifred who lives with him. Everyone but Mildred and Father Malory seems to have plans for them to marry, but she finds herself instead attracted to charmer and upstairs neighbor Rocky Napier, who's is in a troubled marriage with Helena. We're in the early 1950s in a somewhat downtrodden London neighborhood, and Mildred lives thriftily on a small bequest from her father, while volunteering at the church and a local charity. "Excellent women" like her are those who are always helping others, staying calm and upbeat when the chips are down, and, of course, never marrying. What helps save this book from the maudlin is Mildred's unflinching and even at times mocking self-perspective, as so deftly portrayed by author Barbara Pym. Early on Mildred clarifies for the reader, so that there be no misunderstandings, "Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person". No madwoman in the attic, no climactic happiness, just truth and eloquence and a hefty dose of charm.

Mildred learns early on that Rocky (Rockingham - what a name) beguiles everyone, particularly women, and she routinely cautions herself whenever she leans toward being too smitten. "I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.” Because she is such an excellent woman, Mildred soon finds Rocky's wife Helena confiding their marital problems to her, and Mildred in turn does what she can to help them reconcile. Due to their friendship she attends lectures at the Learned Anthropological Society, and there meets Helena's fellow anthropologist and reluctant romantic target Everard Bone. Everard is handsome but awkward, and comes to appreciate Mildred. Meanwhile, the conscientious and honorable Father Malory starts to be drawn to a clergyman's widow named Allegra Gray, who is suspiciously well-dressed and accomplished at getting her own way. This of course is an affront to the parish members who plan that Malory marry Mildred. Eventually Mildred must help Father Malory with his romantic difficulties, as well as helping the Napiers.

Mildred's life isn't lived on a large canvas; instead, it seems like one we see in some way all around us. There are small disappointments, like being viewed as an excellent woman. “'You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.' I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.” There are small pleasures, often involving tea. “I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.” As a person living alone, she often derives meaning from her participation in the lives of others. "I pulled myself up and told myself to stop these ridiculous thoughts, wondering why it is that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all.”

This book has an undercurrent of humor throughout and, as Richard has observed, Pym is nonjudgmental in her incisive character portrayals. While life can be disappointing at times, it has its satisfactions, and overall is well worth living. The writing really isn't Austen-like, but the comparisons probably derive from Pym's wit and acute powers of observation. Having said that, there were moments of Austen-like reading bliss, like this one: “There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of our better instincts,we long to know about them.” Many thanks to Bonnie for convincing me to try Pym. I'll be reading more. ( )
1 vote jnwelch | Oct 17, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ashizu, KaoriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ford, JessieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Houweling, DjukeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kiely, OrlaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Porte, SabineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, Alexander McCallIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Uras, ElifTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winkler, DoraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zulaika, JaimeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To My Sister
First words
"Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there's something happening!" The voice belonged to Mr Mallet, one of our churchwardens.
"'Dear Mildred, you must learn to feel like drinking at any time. I shall make myself responsible for your education.'" (Rocky Napier to Mildred Lathbury)
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Mildred Lathbury is one of those excellent women who are often taken for granted. She is a godsend, 'capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather'. Her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, seem to be facing a marital crisis. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred has a soft spot for young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest and most touching.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 014310487X, Paperback)

An unqualifiedly great novel from the writer most likely to be compared to Jane Austen, this is a very funny, perfectly written book that can rival any other in its ability to capture the essence of its characters on the page. Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Pym's excellent book is a never-married woman in her 30s--which in 1950s England makes her a nearly-confirmed spinster. Hers is a pretty unexciting life, centered around her small church, and part-time job. But Mildred is far more perceptive and witty than even she seems to think, and when Helena and Rockingham Napier move into the flat below her, there seems to be a chance for her life to take a new direction.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:24 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A subtle comedy about life and its complications chronicles the experiences of spinster Mildred Lathbury, who tends to become involved in other people's affairs, set in England during the 1950's.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 5 descriptions

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