Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It’s been a few years since I read my first Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels, and I really thought I would have read another one before now. For some reason, though, it has just never felt like the right time and poor Excellent Women has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end. I wish I’d managed to read it sooner as I did enjoy it, although I think I preferred Less Than Angels, which is surprising as this is certainly Barbara Pym’s best known book and seems to be many people’s favourite as well.

Mildred Lathbury is one of the excellent women of the title and is also our narrator. An unmarried woman in her early thirties, she lives alone in a flat in 1950s London and works part-time at a society for impoverished gentlewomen. Although her parents are both dead, Mildred’s father had been a clergyman and the church is still a big part of her life. She devotes her spare time to helping out at her local parish church, St Mary’s, where she has become good friends with the vicar, Julian Malory, and his sister Winifred.

As the novel opens, Mildred discovers she has new neighbours moving in below – they are Helena Napier, an anthropologist, and her husband Rockingham (Rocky), who has just come home from the Navy. After being apart for so long, the Napiers are struggling to settle down into married life; Helena is preoccupied with her work and spending a lot of time with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, leaving Rocky to turn to Mildred for companionship and support. Soon Mildred finds herself more deeply involved in the problems of Helena, Rocky and Everard than she had intended to be – and a further complication arrives in the form of Allegra Grey, an attractive widow who takes the spare room at the vicarage and quickly begins to cause trouble for the vicar and his sister.

Excellent Women is definitely the sort of book in which characters are more important than plot, and I’m happy with that when the characters are as real and as convincing as these. I liked Mildred from the beginning – partly because, as a single woman myself, I could understand and sympathise with her in a lot of ways, but also because she seems a genuinely nice person. Her friends and neighbours expect Mildred to always have time for them and their problems, to listen, to give advice and to provide cups of tea – all the things that make an ‘excellent woman’ – but there’s also a sense that she is often taken for granted and misunderstood. She likes living on her own and values her independence and, while she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of marrying one day, it isn’t a priority for her either.

I enjoyed getting to know Mildred and spending some time in her world, but I didn’t love this novel as wholeheartedly as I hoped I would and as I know most other readers have. Although the writing is quite witty in places, I remember finding Less Than Angels a much more humorous book and I think that could be why I liked that one more. Or maybe I just like to be different! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s work – and will try not to wait so long before picking up another one.

17 thoughts on “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. aartichapati says:

    Excellent Women was my first Pym and I really enjoyed it. I have read more of her books and I do enjoy all of them, though I can’t always remember the plot of one vs another or remember if I have read one based on the plot summary. It’s not that they are all the same – it’s just that they all SOUND like they are the same because they tend to be about the same types of people and have more gentle plots than really exciting ones. That sounds like an insult but I don’t mean it to be one at all! I really like her and her gentle but rapier wit 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I understand what you mean – most of her books do sound very similar. I really like Pym’s writing too and I think sometimes a gentle plot can be just as enjoyable as an exciting one.

  2. Lark says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of the Pym novels I’ve read; I think I favor Excellent Women because it was my first. I read Less Than Angels earlier this year and did find it very humorous; Pym’s satiric wit in that book made me laugh out loud several times. I can see why you like it better. What one do you think you might read next?

    • Helen says:

      I think the first book you read by an author is often the one you like best. I’m not sure which one I’m going to read next – a lot of them sound appealing!

  3. Lisa says:

    This was the book that reintroduced me to Barbara Pam, and I do think it’s my favorite. I just like Mildred so much! I haven’t read or re-read any of Pym’s books in a while, now that I think about it.

    • Helen says:

      Although I didn’t love the book as much as I’d hoped to, I did love Mildred! I’m looking forward to reading more of her books now.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you can appreciate it more next time, if you do decide to read it again. I don’t think this is a book that would have appealed to me when I was younger.

  4. heavenali says:

    I love Barbara Pym, Excellent Women is classic Pym. I’m glad you enjoyed this although it might not be your favourite- perhaps your next Pym will be the one that you really connect with. My favourite is probably Quartet in Autumn.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve enjoyed both of the Pym books I’ve read, but didn’t really love either of them. I’m hoping that will happen with the next one I read. Maybe I should try Quartet in Autumn.

      • buriedinprint says:

        Quartet in Autumn was my first as well, and I do still feel a particular fondness for it. Another I really enjoyed was No Fond Return of Love, or at least I think it was that one (antiques? the fine art of creating an index?), but I read them all in such a blur at first that I’ve muddled them a bit. I can see not thinking that Excellent Women was simply amazing from the perspective that it does seem to get all the glowing attention and some of the others are quite fine too, but perhaps they are not as consistently or positively marketed to readers.

        • Helen says:

          Yes, I’m sure you’re right – my expectations for Excellent Women were probably too high because of the way it does tend to get so much more attention than any of Pym’s other books. I’m looking forward to reading my third Pym novel to see how it compares with the two I’ve already read.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I have not read Barbara Pym yet. But right now I am reading that famous book about women in mid 20th century: The Group by Mary McCarthy. American women of course, but excellent and flawed, each in their own way.

  6. Claudia says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of the Pym novels, but to be honest, cannot really remember if I’ve read this one. Will have to get it out again to be sure.

  7. Elena W says:

    I will have to consider Less Than Angels since I just finished Excellent Women and enjoyed it a lot. Jane and Prudence is my second Pym on my Classics Club list, so I am looking forward to that one as well. You had a great point that although everyone comes to Mildred for advice and tea, she is often misunderstood and not valued for her own self rather than the help she can provide. I wanted to shake Helena and Rocky and tell them to fix their own marriage and leave poor Mildred alone since she was their go-between. She was always placed in awkward positions by people; I would cringe for her but she would deal with it so well.

    I will link my review for Excellent Women in my name, if interested!

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