Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


Excellent Women
Barbara Pym

There are three things that make Barbara Pym’s world foreign to me. Not the English part, I have been inhaling all things England since I was 11. And not the clerical milieu, I grew up next door to a parsonage and became very familiar with the life and work of a protestant clergy family (despite having been raised Roman Catholic and having spent lots (and lots) of time at an RC church across town).

Now that I think about it, the three foreign things are kind of related to the two mentioned above. First, food. Perhaps it is the 1950s setting of Excellent Women that has our heroine Mildred Lathbury eating sad little meals because of lingering food shortages in the wake of World War II. And the War experience at least in my mind, is quintessentially British, so that might all be part and parcel of the whole English-ness of the book. (Don’t worry, I’m not using British and English interchangeably…)

Second, and this I guess must also relate to post-war circumstances, housing shortages. I have lived in some pretty, er, Bohemian settings over the years, but none of them ever required sharing a bathroom with another apartment—College dormitories don’t count. The fact that grown adults in the industrialized world had to consider such housing arrangements is indeed foreign to me.

Third, religious intolerance. Granted religion and other aspects of familial, civic, and political life have always mixed in a rather unholy way. But I think I must have grown up in an ecumenical atmosphere. Personal animus related to religion was not really an acceptable position either at home or next door at the parsonage. And whenever my parents would talk about the old days when marrying outside one’s faith was a huge deal that had broken up families, etc. it was always in the context of thank goodness we’re not like that. I don’t think Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women is intolerant, but she certainly is surrounded by lots of parochial thinking that is as off putting as it is foreign to me.

In essence Excellent Women is about those excellent women who keep things moving. They make tea, they comfort, they volunteer, they are trustworthy and can be depended upon. But they don’t get married. And, as in Mildred’s case, they often get taken advantage of by the coupled and the male. More than once I wanted Mildred to flip them all the bird and tell them to do it themselves.

Excellent Women is vintage Pym with some darker overtones than earlier works like Some Tame Gazelle (which remains my favorite Pym). And having recently read a bio of Pym certainly heightened my enjoyment and understanding of the work.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. Ti March 2, 2010 / 11:13 am

    Mildred, flipping them the bird would certainly be a sight!


  2. verity March 2, 2010 / 11:14 am

    What an interesting review Thomas – I'm interested to hear what you feel makes Pym a bit alien to you. I think the things you mention are very much of the period and could easily be alien to British readers now. I hope you will continue to enjoy more Pym books


  3. Amanda March 2, 2010 / 5:51 pm

    I feel as if I'm saving this book for the perfect day. It has been on the top of the list for ages; I'm waiting for the perfect time.


  4. Mrs. B. March 2, 2010 / 7:59 pm

    Great review! I enjoyed this book too. Pym is a lot of fun.


  5. Nan March 2, 2010 / 8:44 pm

    I read somewhere, Thomas, that Pym's books can serve as social history. She documents a time and place long gone and never to return. I'm sure she never thought of her writing that way but it sure is true. 'Protestant' is definitely not the same as Church of England, Anglican. And not even Episcopalian in this country. We (yes I am one) are as some say, Catholic without the Pope. :<) As different from say, Congregational as can be, especially in the days of Mildred. I just loved reading your review. Thanks. I'm just now reading Margaret Halsey's, With Malice Toward Some -and she writes of the English food pre-war, 1938!


  6. Thomas at My Porch March 2, 2010 / 10:18 pm

    Ti: It would be great, but I guess that wouldn't be very Pym.

    Verity: The world she describes is alien, but not at all alienating. I love peeking inside the world she creates. I will definitely read everything she wrote, no worries there.

    Amanda: I totally understand what you mean. I have so many that fall into that category. I just laid my hands on the 2 Brookner novels I haven't read (out of 23) and I am not sure when to crack them open.

    Mrs B: Thanks, I am definitely a fan.

    Nan: I am sure there may be differences in doctrine, but I think National Cathedral here in DC is rather Anglican in *style* (if not substance). As far as the Anglican Church and the Roman Church go, 400 years seems like a long time to carry on a grudge match.


  7. Hannah Stoneham March 3, 2010 / 4:54 am

    Thomas – I think that this is the most interesting reflection on reading that I have read too – and a real pleasure it was.

    I agree with Verity – that much of Barbara Pym's world is now so far removed from the average British experience that it would be equally obscure to people here now (I say “here” – I mean “there” as although i am British I am currently in France). having said that – the crampedness of large parts of London remains the same and when i first graduated – me and a lot of my friends were living in house shares with very little space – one bathroom between three couples etc – so in a way this element of it is just part of the London furniture.

    I think you have also touched on something else – the idea and mythology of the war experience is just part of British identity – even people whose parents weren't alive when the war was on – they somehow grew up with the ideas and they form part of the way we see ourselves culturally.

    I have a book which is pretty hefty – but which looks very good which you have inspired me to read – it is called “Austerity Britain” and it is all about how awful life was after the war….

    Anyway – thanks for your post – you have really made me think



  8. Nadia March 3, 2010 / 10:38 am

    Great review, Thomas. I've never read Pym, so I wouldn't really know what to expect of her writing. I have this particular book sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I just think that I have to be in the mood to read this book, so I'm waiting for that mood to strike. Thanks to your review, I now know that when I finally do want to read this book, it will definitely be worth the read. Cheers!!


  9. savidgereads March 3, 2010 / 11:04 am

    I think that I have to read this book, I have been wondering where to start with Pym and this sounds like the perfect place.


  10. Nan March 3, 2010 / 12:58 pm

    Nan, again. Didn't want you to think I'm someone who believes in one true way. I hardly ever go to church, but was brought up Episc. As far as a 'grudge match' I am acquainted with a few people who do deeply believe their way is *the* way, period. 400 years is but a minute. :<) Sadly, so much of the world's fighting is due to these kinds of beliefs.


  11. Thomas at My Porch March 3, 2010 / 6:45 pm

    Hannah: I am glad you appreciated it. I think the Austerity Britain book sounds fascinating. I love reading about deprivation that isn't the result of a ne'er do well drunk parent.

    Nadia: If you end up liking it, you will wonder why you waited so long to try Pym.

    Simon S: I actually think Some Tame Gazelle is the place to start. But you won't go wrong if you start with Excellent Women.

    Nan: I re-read my response to you and it did seem a bit like I had a horse in that race. I really don't. I am pretty much a non-believer these days although I do like the ecclesiastical milieu of folks like Pym and Trollope and others.


  12. Lu @ Regular Rumination March 7, 2010 / 12:43 pm

    I've really struggled with Barbara Pym in the past, specifically with Quartet in Autumn. I didn't love it, but I understood why someone who could relate in some way would. There was little to nothing I could relate to, but maybe one day.


  13. Thomas at My Porch March 11, 2010 / 12:48 am

    Lu: I haven't read Quartet in Autumn. Maybe it is a side of Pym I don't know.


  14. Katrina Malone March 14, 2010 / 5:11 pm

    Hi there, interesting comments on Barbara Pym. I've been a fan of hers for a number of years so to get a fresh perspective is illuminating. Not sure I agree completely about the 'religious intolerance' though. Remember 'irony' is the watchword with Pym so I wouldn't take too seriously some of the religious comments, there's a jokiness underneath. And the British are if anything considered almost too tolerant, some would say, so that needs to be read into the mix too. Even then it was a secular society which paid lip service to good principles but wasn't bothered who or what you worshipped, as long as you *don't cause a fuss*! I'm an academic librarian in Oxford, so almost stereotypical Pym in theory, though perhaps not in practice.

    What an interesting selection of books you've been reading! I'd also recommend Persephone Books who publish 'rediscovered 20th century classics' but maybe you're already familiar with those.


  15. Thomas at My Porch March 15, 2010 / 8:04 pm

    Katrina: Thanks for stopping by. Just to clarify, I don't think Pym was intolerant of Roman Catholics, just some of the characters in Excellent Women–who I assume had some basis in fact.

    I love Persephone books, I have quite a few older posts about them. And I even participated in the Pesephone Post secret santa this past Christmas. It was loads of fun.


  16. Katrina Malone March 18, 2010 / 3:51 pm

    Hi Thomas, ah yes, see what you mean about some characters' comments. You know there's even a Barbara Pym cookbook?!?

    Persephone: yes, sorry, looking back through your archive I see you are fully aware of them. At our local reading group in Oxford, the Albion Beatnik Bookshop Book Group, it's my turn soon to pick our next read, and I'm thinking of the Persephone book 'The Hopkins Manuscript', which I proofread for Persephone, a sort of stiff upper lip sci-fi story about the moon crashing into the earth and surprisingly moving in more ways than one.


  17. Thomas at My Porch March 19, 2010 / 9:10 am

    Katrina: How cool that you proofread The Hopkins Manuscript manuscript. I haven't read it, but I gave it to my Pesephone Secret Santa because she seemed to have an inclination toward sci-fi.


  18. Katrina Malone March 20, 2010 / 1:45 pm

    People can be put off by the 'sci-fi' tag, but this was both gripping and touching, and terribly English (may be a good or bad thing depending on one's taste!). Think Diary of a Nobody (have you read that?) morphing into the early b/w film 'The Shape of Things to Come'.


  19. Aarti May 10, 2010 / 2:00 pm

    I always wish people would let me know when this happens, so just wanted to come back and comment on this post- I picked up Excellent Women this past week, I believe based on this review, and I plan to start reading it today! So thank you :-)


  20. Bellezza June 5, 2013 / 3:49 pm

    Just linked your review to mine; it is yours which I prefer. I, too, reveled in the strength of Mildred while bemoaning her bathroom sharing-small meal enjoying-interferring busy bodies of the church. I like how Pym upheld the idea of an excellent woman, but I can agree with you that poor Mildred should have told some of them to carry on without her.

    I disagree with a review I read that Everard and Mildred marry. Do you believe that to be true? I think he was much too preoccupied with himself, much too practical to be romantic, and I think all he wanted of her was what everyone else wanted: her faithful assistance.

    My review is here. Thank you for hosting this week Thomas, it was my first introduction to Barbara Pym, and I much prefer knowing her through the insight of other's eyes in accompaniment to my own.


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