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Excellent Women (1952)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,5101154,974 (3.99)1 / 622
"Excellent Women" is one of Barbara Pyms richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergymans daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those excellent women, the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighborsanthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next doorthe 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. 71
    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (carlym)
  2. 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.)
  3. 40
    Commonplace by Christina Rossetti (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Considers the plight of spinsters
  4. 30
    Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (catherinestead)
  5. 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.
  6. 00
    Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (potenza)
    potenza: Similarly independent protagonist, period, and setting. (Any Barbara Pym is a companion to Bird Cottage.)
  7. 00
    The Odd Women by George Gissing (potenza)
    potenza: Vastly different period and style, yet a similar thematic demographic
  8. 00
    An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden (BeckyJP)
  9. 00
    Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner (carlym)
  10. 00
    Lady on the Burning Deck by Catherine Heath (KayCliff)
  11. 00
    Old Mrs. Camelot by Emery Bonett (MissWoodhouse1816)
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» See also 622 mentions

English (112)  Tagalog (1)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (115)
Showing 1-5 of 112 (next | show all)
10 October, 2017
The truth was, I thought, looking once more at the letter on my desk which could not now be finished tonight, that I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens as the nobler language of our great hymn-writers put it. Then, too, I had become selfish and set in my ways and would surely be a difficult person to live with. [pp. 232]
I'm not sure how to phrase it, but the more I think about this book and Mildred Lathbury, the more I think I love them.
  best_bunyip | Aug 15, 2022 |
This is a comedy of manners about Mildred, a clergyman's daughter. It is the 1950s, and she is in her 30s and has resigned herself to being a spinster and spending her days working and having tea with her friends, who include a bachelor clergyman and his sister. Her routine is thrown into disarray when a married couple move into the other flat in her building.

The titular "excellent women" are those women who men rely on, but rarely acknowledge, such as wives of academics who write the indexes for their husbands' books, or sisters of clergymen who cook all their meals. Mildred increasingly finds herself being shunted into this role of excellent woman, always making tea for people in times of crisis.

Mostly I found this book to be dull. There isn't much plot to speak of, just a lot of gossipy details of people's relationships. Any feminist bent the book might have is completely ruined by the ending. I consider myself to have a pretty dry wit, but I really didn't find anything very funny. ( )
  Gwendydd | Jul 4, 2022 |
This was a read for our St. Joseph;s Episcopal Church Book Club in Durham, NC. Because many have reviewed, I only to point out some salient points for me. The book title "excellent women" functions as a motif throughout the book, being mentioned at least 8 or 9 times by various people. In 1952, there were still WW2 many ruins in Britain. A mention of Blackpool weather reminds me of the Illuminations besides the difficult weather for a seaside resort. The book titles starting with "Wild Beasts and their Ways" really do exists although old. Helena's lecture and Mildred's musing while the was talking is the largest chapter in the book. The French ditty (si mea very avaient des ailes) is frequently sung in France. Hymns Ancient & Modern is being discarded in favor of the English Hymnal, although both are influenced by Abglo-Catholicism, the former dates to 1863 and the latter to 1906. All in all, Mildred is a self-effacing person and I realize I can go into that mode. ( )
  vpfluke | Apr 11, 2022 |
I'm not entirely sure what I just read. It's beautifully written, but I'd be hard pressed to outline its plot. Beyond being a social commentary on single women in the 1950's, with a sidebar on the changing morays of post-war Britain, there's not a lot happening.

Mildred is a 30-something spinster, the daughter of a clergyman, living on her own in London and living for her local church. Mildred is quietly wry about her lot in life, while also being something of a doormat; a combination that seems incongruous to me, though that itself might be a reflection of how far we've come: I have the luxury of not only thinking wry thoughts, but expressing them, and choosing not being anybody's doormat.

When the flat beneath hers is let to a 'modern' married couple - the kind that were hastily married during WWII - Mildred's life is sucked into the vortex of their melodrama. Again, something I could not relate to, but this time I couldn't even imagine a set of circumstances where Mildred's experience seems logical. Except one, and it's the one I think Pym was using, though obliquely (by today's standards): Mildred was in love with, or crushing hard on, Rocky. There's plenty of evidence that she was - but there's plenty to point to that shows Mildred's misery at doing Rocky and Helena's bidding as well, and again, that seems incongruous to me. People who are crushing on their neighbours (or whomever) are generally happy to be involved in their crush's life. Mildred is highly moral, but there's no evidence that her misery stems from the moral quagmire of crushing on a married neighbor, rather is feels like a bone deep fatigue with always being considered an "Excellent Woman".

Speaking of "Excellent Women", this sort of feels like Pym's true message; 'Excellent Women' are much admired and relied upon, but rarely loved or appreciated; indeed that being called an Excellent Woman is a rather back-handed compliment. If this was, in fact, Pym's intent, she sort of failed in my opinion. The message is there, yes, but it's subtle; maybe a little too subtle, as it's drowned out by all the drama happening amongst neighbours and friends.

There are a few other things going on during all of this: Julian, the vicar's, surprise romance with an unsuitable widow, Mildred's friend Dora - a bitter old prune in the making, and possibly the most awkward courtship I've ever read happening between Mildred and another character. None of which added any depth to the story for me, nor made any of the characters more sympathetic.

As I said though, the writing was wonderful, and highlights included learning about the true meaning of being a slut ::grin::, and what might be one of the best character names ever: Everard Bone, couple with one of the most hilarious lines I've read in a while (context: a turned down dinner invitation):

Immediately he asked this, I realised that there had been a little nagging worry, an unhappiness, almost, at the back of my mind. Everard Bone and his meat.

Buried amidst the terribly prim and proper setting of this book, this line struck me as inordinately funny, and evidence Pym had a wicked sense of humor. ( )
  murderbydeath | Jan 22, 2022 |
Fortunately Mildred Lathbury understands what is expected of a single clergyman's daughter in 1950s Britain, still recovering from war and shortages. Still, the unwanted requests for help come from all sides, and Mildred cheerfully obliges. As one of those "excellent women" who do the everyday work of the church: the flower arrangements, organizing jumble sales, polishing the brasses, sitting on committees, and making gallons of tea, Mildred is a woman who can be relied on to handle anything. This was a charming story, true to life for the era, highly entertaining and filled with fabulous characters. My favourite Barbara Pym novel that I've read so far. ( )
  VivienneR | Jan 2, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 112 (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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"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 Pyms richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergymans daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those excellent women, the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighborsanthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next doorthe 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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