Excellent Women celebrates the full life of quiet people

Tea pot, books & typewriter in Barbara Pym Society
Web site of the Barbara Pym Society

[This is one of our occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller list .]

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a quiet novel of keen observation and droll wit.

Narrator Mildred Lathbury, a nondescript, mousy, 30ish spinster, lives in post-war London very much as she lived in a rural rectory when her parents were alive.

Publicly, Mildred is regarded as able to dispense tea and platitudes at appropriate times. Privately, her observations are tinged with irony. Mildred sees herself exactly as readers will see her; she finds the sight both depressing and funny.

Crisis comes into Mildred’s life second hand. An unlikely couple move into the flat below her. Mrs. Napier is an anthropologist, her husband a former Navy officer. Mildred is drawn into the Napiers’ life and caught in their marital tensions.

About the same time, Mildred’s vicar and his sister rent part of the rectory to a war-widow, throwing the parish into a tizzy. Mildred enjoys the novelty of these intrigues at the edges of her life, but she also resents the way people presume on her good will and intrude on her solitude.

Nothing actually happens to Mildred in the novel, but she finds it possible to have “a full life” at the fringes of the lives of more interesting characters.

Excellent Women
By Barbara Pym
Cape, 1952

Excellent Women is readily available in hardback, paperback, new and used versions.

For information about the author, whose work is often likened to that of Jane Austen,  see the website of The Barbara Pym Society.

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Linda Aragoni

I read. I write. I think. I make big ideas simple. I help teachers teach expository writing to teens and adults. In my free time, I read and review old novels.

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