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Excellent Women (1952)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,7491265,269 (3.98)1 / 645
Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those excellent women, the smart, supportive, repressed women whom men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors-anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door-the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.… (more)
  1. 61
    Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (Miels)
    Miels: Similar themes and a the same lovely but understated quality to the writing. Both stories are told with wry humor. Both stories have an underlying sadness. (Though Brookner's book tends more to the melancholy side.)
  2. 72
    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (carlym)
  3. 40
    Commonplace by Christina Rossetti (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Considers the plight of spinsters
  4. 40
    Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (Eat_Read_Knit)
  5. 00
    Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner (carlym)
  6. 00
    Lady on the Burning Deck by Catherine Heath (KayCliff)
  7. 00
    Old Mrs. Camelot by Emery Bonett (MissWoodhouse1816)
  8. 00
    The Odd Women by George Gissing (potenza)
    potenza: Vastly different period and style, yet a similar thematic demographic
  9. 00
    Indelicacy by Amina Cain (potenza)
    potenza: As the the story progressed, I started to hear Barbara Pym. Something of similar sensibility on self and relationships and humor.
  10. 00
    Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (potenza)
    potenza: Similarly independent protagonist, period, and setting. (Any Barbara Pym is a companion to Bird Cottage.)
  11. 01
    An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden (BeckyJP)
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 Virago Modern Classics: Barbara Pym Centenary: Excellent Women41 unread / 41Robertgreaves, March 2013

» See also 645 mentions

English (122)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  Tagalog (1)  All languages (125)
Showing 1-5 of 122 (next | show all)
(2020 has become my year of rereading the novels of Barbara Pym, my favourite novelist - "favourite" in the sense of "speaks most to my soul", not as in "greatest" or "best"; I believe she would have appreciated the distinction. This is my revised review.)

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 with fellow tenants 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. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
Really funny and clever; particularly re: Anglo-Catholic social culture. It sometimes managed to feel a little gruesome, just from the sheer claustrophobic press of expectations and under-estimations one can feel around the narrator at all times, which was impressive if difficult to experience at times. I want Mildred Lathbury to never have to cook for a man who doesn't know the first thing about her ever again! ( )
  localgayangel | Mar 5, 2024 |
Simply a wonderful read. ( )
  vscauzzo | Jan 29, 2024 |
excellent! jumble sales, endless cups of tea, that cursed incense (whether the good type or no), the meaning behind a quick glance- oh my. such minuscule things, stirred and expanded to take over all of our narrator’s tiny universe. The minutia of a quiet spinster’s life, the strictures of lower middle class post WW2 church-centric society, observed by a witty, dark intelligence with an extraordinary subtlety and an occasional giggle.

‘Well, you’re a sensible person. it’s just the kind of thing you would have.’
Oh, dear, one was to be for ever cast down, I thought, brooding over the piece of fish on my plate….

haha! If you like the Penelopes, Muriel Spark or Nancy Mitford you will thoroughly enjoy this gem. ( )
  diveteamzissou | Jan 1, 2024 |
Needed a break after reading a string of YA dystopians for work. This book is certainly the polar opposite of a YA dystopian, and it's a classic of humorous 20th-century British fiction for a reason.

Excellent Women is a comedy of manners—except that the setting is bleak post-War London, and it's a black comedy. This book is kind of like the anti-chick lit novel, with the quaint job (instead of a cupcake shop, a Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen) and the cast of baffling, unreliable men.

It's not laugh-out loud funny, but is nevertheless hilarious; Mildred's voice gives everything a tragic (but restrained) humor. And while many of the supporting characters have the two-dimensional quality you see in satire, Mildred is a complex, fully realized character and the reason I kept turning the pages.

Some books succeed by stringing together well-written scenes, but Excellent Women succeeds as a beautifully orchestrated whole, with impeccable comic pacing.

I hope I am not overselling this book—to enjoy it, you have to be the kind of person who enjoys reading about a vicar's daughter making tea and organizing jumble sales for 270 pages. I just happen to be that person. ( )
  raschneid | Dec 19, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 122 (next | show all)
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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.
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."
Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.
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Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. This is Barbara Pym's world at its funniest. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those excellent women, the smart, supportive, repressed women whom men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors-anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door-the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

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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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