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

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

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,603734,536 (4.03)1 / 474
Member:-Cee-
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
Rating:****1/2
Tags:English, Virago, Gender roles

Work details

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

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Showing 1-5 of 71 (next | show all)
People have been telling me to read Barbara Pym ever since my English teacher first recommended her, but I didn’t till now, put off by the subject matter.

Excellent Women has the most unpromising of heroines – not only that despised creature, a spinster, but a vicar’s daughter as well. She is living in dowdy post-war Britain, eking out a small income in a flat with a shared bathroom, living on plain food. She passes her time in working for a charity for distressed gentlewomen and making herself indispensable to the local church.

And yet – Mildred – or Miss Lathbury as she is mostly known to her acquaintance – is a little more complex than that. She is a shrewd observer of character with a sharp sense of humour ‘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’.

Mildred’s predictable life is changed by the arrival of the Napiers in the downstairs flat. Helena Napier has a career as an anthropologist. Rockingham is a handsome Naval officer (though he spent the War in Italy organising the Admiral’s cocktail parties and being charming to Wrens). Helena goes to meetings and even pubs with other men. Rockingham likes to cook. They both have a disconcerting tendency to say what they think, without consideration of others. They are both glamorous and disturbing to Mildred, overturning, as they do, the assumptions of her upbringing.

Mildred finds herself embroiled in the Napiers’ dramas at the same time as an attractive widow arrives in the parish and disturbs its delicate balance of roles and obligations.

There is a pleasing ambiguity to Mildred’s character – she is a vicar’s daughter, but she has moved to London after their deaths. She worked in Censorship during the war. Many other women in that position took the opportunity to break with their past as they lived independently and earned their own income. But Mildred has, in a sense, recreated her family by making the local vicar and his sister her closest friends.

Mildred remains, even when the plot is resolved, elusive. She is stoical, self aware and full of barbed humour. Is she, as a single woman who makes herself indispensable to others, to be pitied, admired or envied? Does she like to be always close to the drama but detached, able to walk away unscathed, or is she scarred by heartbreak? Will she choose to change her life?

The novel beautifully evokes post-war London. The grimness of Mildred’s daily routine is not due to poverty but to the after-effects of the war. There is a kind of equality in the bleakness. Even the Napiers have to negotiate arrangements for the sharing of toilet roll and are limited to rationed food. The rules of engagement between the classes and between men and women are in flux.

Mildred too is a character of her time. We learn little about her sexuality. What, if anything, does she long for? There is little sense that she seeks, or experiences, pleasure. A planned holiday is, it seems neither anticipated nor much enjoyed when it arrives. It is just there to be got through. But what we might once have called repressed, now might seem refreshing. Mildred doesn’t expect life to be awesome with multiple exclamation marks. Or to advertise the fact. She just gets on with it. ( )
  KateVane | Jul 29, 2015 |
Our narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a self-described “spinster” in her early 30s, living in a slightly unfashionable neighborhood of 1950s London. She is one of those “excellent women” who can always be counted on to help with the parish jumble sale or have a pot of tea ready during a moment of crisis. She is ready, and almost looking forward to, settling into her spinsterhood. That is, until the Napiers move into the flat downstairs…

This comedy of manners from Barbara Pym is very charming and occasionally moving. Although nothing much happens in the course of this short novel, Mildred is a wonderful narrator to spend roughly 250 pages with. Her observations are sharp and true to life, and her wit--while equally sharp--is also kind. From start to perfect finish, she kept me very much invested in the comedy and small tragedies of her and her acquaintances’ daily lives. ( )
  AlaynaFisher | May 2, 2015 |
Similar to E F Benson in the satire of English country life, Pym has a keen eye for the psychology of humanity. (Excellent women are the church ladies. And BOY are they persnickety.) ( )
  vlcraven | Jan 7, 2015 |
I've finished reading this book.
I'm not quite sure what to think of it. It was defenitely not a WOW, but also not bad at all. Somewhere in the middle, I think. I was waiting for something to happen, for the lives lead by the main characters are quite dull, uneventfull.
On the other hand: when busy with taking care of life every day, keeping an eye on the neighbours, going to church and its charities and helping out when needed (in short: being an excellent woman), I suppose life is never dull, for all small things count. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Dec 23, 2014 |
Set in 1950s England, Excellent Women explores Mildred Lathbury’s small world. She’s a “spinster” in her 30s who lives a quiet life. Her closet friends are a vicar and his sister. When the Napiers, a contentious married couple, move into her boarding house her life is thrown into turmoil.

I struggled with this one because I honestly couldn’t decide if Pym intended it as a parody or not. Mildred comes across as a cookie cutter version of a spinster. She’s a bit nosy and seems to have no real personality. She’s easily swayed by whoever she’s with at the moment. On the other hand, Helen Napier is a fascinating character. She’s a self-proclaimed horrible housekeeper and cook. She’s passionate about her work in the field of anthropologist, and she’s struggling in her marriage. Unfortunately she’s the one who is presented as a bit of a villain.

The book was not without its charm. There’s a scene where Mildred returns to her childhood school for a reunion event. She’s with an old friend and they are talking about how small and simple everyone’s jobs and descriptions sound. They talk about how the main thing everyone cares about is whether or not they are married. It’s sad and true how little our lives can seem so small when we describe them in a single line or two. The depth and heart of anyone’s life get missed when they are simplified in that way.

BOTTOM LINE: Not my cup of tea, but I’d like to try something else by these author to see if it was just Mildred’s personality that rubbed me the wrong way. ( )
  bookworm12 | Oct 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 71 (next | show all)
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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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Dedication
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.
Quotations
"'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.
I was helping Winifred to sort out things for the jumble sale. "Oh, I think it's DREADFUL when people send their relations to jumble sales," she said. "How CAN they do it?" She held up a tarnished silver frame from which the head and shoulders of a woman dressed in Edwardian style looked out. "And here's another, a clergyman , too." ... "It might almost be somebody we know," lamented Winifred. "Imagine if it were and one saw it lying on the stall! What a shock it would be! I really think I must take the photographs out - it's the frames people will want to buy." "I don't suppose their own relatives send them," I said comfortingly. "I expect the photographs have been in the boxroom for years and nobody knows who they are now." "Yes, I suppose that's it. But it's the idea of being unwanted, it's like sending a PERSON to a jumble sale - do you see? You feel it more as you get older, of course. Young people would only laugh and think what a silly idea."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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.
Haiku summary

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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:13 -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 4 descriptions

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