Book review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

excellent womenPeople 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 – 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.

View Excellent Women on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill

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