The Classics Club: Excellent Women

Author: Barbara Pym (1913-1918)
Originally Published: 1952
Format Used: Audiobook by Blackstone Publishing, 2016 (8.5 hrs)

An exceptionally amusing novel with a lovable protagonist and witty dialogue. Mildred Lathbury is indeed an excellent woman, in the best sense of the term. Coined by Jane Austen in Sandition and first used by Pym in an earlier novel, Civil to Strangers, 'excellent women' was a slightly condescending  term referring to unmarried women who were habitually helping out with the menial tasks of church and other voluntary organizations, such as organizing fundraisers and arranging flowers in front of the pulpit (1). Elsewhere described as "efficient, virtuous and uncomplaining, expecting little and receiving little" (2), these were the dependable ladies you wanted around when you wanted to get stuff done, yet they were subtly a rung lower on the social ladder by their peers for being unmarried. 

The novel follows Mildred throughout her daily happenings while living in London in the post-war 1950s, when rationing was still in effect. A single woman in her thirties whose father was a clergyman before passing away, she leads a quiet life, engaged in her church community and her job at the Society for the Care of Distressed Gentlewomen (“a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one”).  When new neighbors move into the flat above her own,  new adventures disrupt her neat, predictable life. She soon meets them: a beautiful, but slightly cold woman named Helena who is an anthropologist, recently returned from field study with her coworker, an equally cold man named Everard. Her husband, Rockingham, is the complete opposite: friendly and boisterous. Their newlywed marital strife is quite obvious from the start and somehow poor Mildred becomes the middle(wo)man in their squabbles, often to hilarious and awkward outcomes. Meanwhile, Mildred's close friendship with her church's vicar and his spinster sister is threatened when the vicar, who everyone believed would stay single throughout his life, becomes engaged to a glamorous (and sketchy) widow named Allegra. Mildred soon finds herself in the middle of that drama too. Part of the humor is how Mildred, probably for her sweet demeanor and willingness to help people out (and difficulty to say No), always finds herself in awkward positions, peacemaking or problem-solving like the dependable 'excellent woman' everyone knows her to be. 

The plot may not seem engaging since it centers on a woman who likes helping people. But the dialogue and Mildred's own internal monologue and narration of what's going on, such as her precise descriptions of people, was absolutely delightful and entertaining. It was such a pleasure to read and I found myself laughing out loud several times. Mildred is self-deprecating in a silly rather than toxic way, and she is often called upon by friends and acquaintances to fix problems, which points to her being of the 'excellent women' variety. She lacks ambition, glamour, boldness, and romance compared to Helen and Allegra. And yet, she definitely has her own voice and opinions, often exuding wit and even sarcasm. I enjoy novels with quieter female protagonists since I can relate to them more (especially as an introvert) than the glamorous, outspoken, center-of-attention female protagonists that more often get the spotlight in contemporary literature. It validates that we are not boring or less-than just because we prefer a quieter life, and yes, just like Mildred, we can be pretty funny too!

This was Barbara Pym's second novel and she was known for writing social comedies with protagonists often connected to the Anglican Church who also happened to be unmarried women. Some think of her as one of the most underrated novelists of the century. Her novels all have a shared universe: there are short cameos of characters from her different books who intersect in a way that makes each book feel familiar. Three of her novels, including Excellent Women, have characters who are anthropologists, a nod to her work experience at the International African Institute in London and the scholarly journal, Africa. (3). She never married and had no children, which could be why many of her characters are also unmarried women. She also focuses her novels on women more than men, and typically the men in her stories are 
seen as a bit ridiculous, self-absorbed, and, in the case of this novel,  often relying on the excellent women like Mildred to fix their problems. The vicar (Julian), Everard, and Rockingham all depend on Mildred for various reasons. 

I do not often read comedic literature, so I am unaware of all the British novelists who are known for this genre, but I have seen Pym and Wodehouse compared, and I much preferred Pym, though I have only read one novel by each author, so I don't  have extensive knowledge of their writing. The lighthearted plot surrounding unmarried women reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, which I read last month and adored (see my review HERE). And the drastic change in her once quiet life with the introduction of the Napiers reminded me of another funny British novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. I recently read in an article that Pym's humor, particularly in Excellent Women, was a great example of British humor: "it delights in the tiny little things" (4). I definitely agree: Pym made light of everyday happenings like awkward introductions between people, quirky mannerisms and obsessions of sub-characters, and problem-solving that only produces more problems. Her humor is witty, smart, and clean, and maybe a bit old-fashioned  as opposed to the more flashy, gimmicky, slapstick, and crude variety of humor common in our generation. For example, she almost causes an uproar when she questions the importance of tea:

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, 'Do we need tea? she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.” 

And, when invited to dinner with a man (gasp!), she bemoans the messiness of eating spaghetti:

“Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles.” 

I laughed out loud to this comment, because it was true: whenever someone visited her with shocking news, she was always holding a teapot:

“I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.” 

I enjoyed the audiobook format, especially since it was read by Jane Entwistle, who also read Aphrodite's part in Lovely War. Her voice was perfect for Mildred. Now that I have been introduced to Barbara Pym's endearing writing, I am looking forward to reading the other Pym novel on my Classics Club list, Jane and Prudence.

My Rating

Content Rating 
G (no language, sexual content, or gruesome violence)

Classics Club Stats
This is #4 of 55 books in The Classics Club challenge. See my book list HERE