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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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1,993934,975 (4.01)1 / 555
Title:Excellent Women (Penguin Classics)
Authors:Barbara Pym
Other authors:A. N. Wilson (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (2006), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Read, Your library
Tags:Where have I been?

Work details

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

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Showing 1-5 of 90 (next | show all)
Mildred Lathbury, the protagonist of Barbara Pym's most accessible novel, is - I think - often used as a stand-in for Pym herself, even though I can't quite imagine Mildred having some of Barbara's youthful indiscretions. Certainly, though, I sometimes feel I am Mildred... and I'm a thirtysomething male! Perhaps this is the success of Excellent Women.

The worlds of Barbara Pym novels are usually small; here, indeed, we centre around a youngish spinster, her vicar and his sister, and a collection of anthropologists who have spent so much time examining the practices of other cultures that they are loath to entirely commit to the standard practices of their own. Pym's insight is as sharp as a pin, and her wit stabs like one too.

I sometimes hear Pym compared to another classic 20th century Brit, Anthony Powell (whom she read frequently) but I think there is a clear difference. Powell's characters, in his legendary "A Dance to the Music of Time" sequence, seem to be in the process of realising that life isn't entirely the tea party privileged young white people are promised. Pym's characters, on the other hand, open the book already aware of this. It is our privilege to watch them deal with this understanding, and seek a way to move forward in spite of it. Mildred's feeling on having to share a bathroom at her stage in life, for example, is not quite horror, it's just resignation with a hint of self-doubt, and an occasional flutter (usually suppressed) of hope for a better outcome in future.

Amidst the barbs and sighs of Pym's characters, we are witnessing a fantastic cultural document, an entire world unfolding before our eyes. And in every interaction, the missed moments, the unintentional disparagement, the self-doubt amplified into pain and suffering. Unusually for a Pym novel, "Excellent Women" is in the first person, meaning that we miss out on one of her most sublime talents, an almost post-modern approach to point-of-view, where the author flits disarmingly between characters, allowing us to adapt to one way of thinking before we are rudely reminded that what is logical to one person is absurdity to another.

"Bittersweet" is an easy adjective to describe the end of most of Pym's novels, but perhaps - like the post-war rationing English cuisine that fills her early books - the taste is better described as "tasty but practical". Not overly rich, sometimes making do with a substitute ingredient, and a cheap bottle of wine from the store down the street to go with one's solitary meal. But you know (most of the time) that things will feel a bit better in the morning, with crumpets and tea by the fire. ( )
1 vote therebelprince | Nov 1, 2018 |
Mildred Lathbury is an intelligent, self-sufficient woman who happens to be unmarried. In post-war England there were thousands of women like her: devout and helpful, living quiet, respectable lives; in other words, excellent women all. Their one failing, according to those around them, is that they are unmarried.

When an exciting young couple moves into the flat below Mildred's, she is drawn to Helena, the brash, independent anthropologist, and her husband, Rocky, whose charm has turned the heads of many young women. Even though the Napier's marriage is precarious and slightly scandalous, Mildred wonders if she isn't missing something in not being married. She likes the attention from Rocky, even though she knows he is only flirting, as he does with every woman. And she is slightly disappointed when the young minister at her church falls for a sexually attractive newcomer. Everyone assumes Mildred wants to be married. Does she?

The book was published in 1952, a transitional time for women in England and elsewhere. Now that the men have returned from war, wives like Helena and unmarried women like Mildred must find a way to accommodate a return to old roles, but with new sensibilities. It's this search for a new place in society that creates the tension in the novel. Must women choose to be either married or be an "excellent woman"? Or is there another choice, a way to be an independent woman who does not feel less actualized because she is unmarried?

Although others have found the book to be amusing, I found it to be melancholy. Mildred is not happy with her life, nor is she deeply unsatisfied, instead she lives an unexceptional life with quiet dignity, occasionally wondering if things could have been different, and if they had, would she have been happier? I wanted something more for her, perhaps more than she wanted for herself. I was left wondering if contentment was enough of a satisfaction in life. ( )
2 vote labfs39 | Sep 8, 2018 |
This is the first book I’ve ever read by Barbara Pym and now I’m wondering how on earth I managed to avoid her for so long. First published in 1952, Excellent Women is a comedy of manners set in contemporary London, in a community based around the local church. At its heart is Mildred Lathbury, orphaned clergyman’s daughter and self-professed spinster: one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied upon to keep the parish running, join in with the flower rota and man the stalls at the church fair. Mildred’s world has the stifling cosiness of a small village, where everyone knows one another’s business and gossip greases the cogs of life. But around her, the world is changing. When a young couple moves into the flat below Mildred’s, she finds herself unwillingly dragged into their vibrant, unconventional, and entirely shocking lives...

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2018/03/01/excellent-women-barbara-pym/ ( )
1 vote TheIdleWoman | Mar 1, 2018 |
This is the first Barbara Pym book I read. I did enjoy it and I can see why people see Jane Austen in her writing. All the characters where very enjoyable and funny in their own way.
I really identify with the character Mildred Lathbury, as being a single woman myself. Since Mildred was single and not married, it was amazing the amount of people who either want to find her husband, or thought she was in love with someone and just waiting to be asked (The Vicar is one case). I felt that since she was single and such an excellent woman that they really imposed on her, because she had the time and must not have any desires of her own.
Even today people do think some is a bit odd that you want to be single and not be married. I’m very glad at the end of the book she didn’t have Mildred married at the end, even though in my general conclusion she would eventually marry Everard Bone.
I felt that this book was very relatable to everyday life, nothing fancy or wild. Just a possible true account of some life. I did wish that she would have delved a bit in more in some of the characters, but I hear some of them pop up in other books.
( )
  lemonpop | Nov 22, 2017 |
"I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman."
By sally tarbox on 13 November 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
After not at all enjoying my first Barbara Pym novel ("An Academic Question"), I embarked on this with some trepidation- but it's a wonderful read, light, laugh out loud funny at some points, yet revealing of truths about life.
Narrator Mildred Lathbury is a 30-something vicar's daughter, living a busy, genteel yet small life in her post-War London bedsit. Church, holidays with her spinster chum, a job helping gentlewomen in reduced circumstances... and her encounters with the people around her form Mildred's world. And while she encounters a few men and even imagines possible futures for herself, she is attuned to the negatives of marriage (even while being sadly aware of her own image as an 'excellent woman' - virtuous, practical and Christian.

Amusing moments abound: when Mildred's anthropologist neighbour leaves her husband, her colleague comfortingly observes "You will do better work without your husband. You will now be able to devote your whole life to the study of matrilineal kin-groups."
A lackluster dinner with the vicar and his unmarried sister features "a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or 'shape', also of indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard. Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese."

Will be reading more Barbara Pym! ( )
1 vote starbox | Nov 13, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ashizu, KaoriTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ford, JessieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Halligan, GeriNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Houweling, DjukeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kiely, OrlaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McFarlane, DebraIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Porte, SabineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, Alexander McCallIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Uras, ElifTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, A. N.Introductionsecondary 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.
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."
Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.
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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 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 5 descriptions

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