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Excellent Women

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Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her han Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.


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Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her han Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

30 review for Excellent Women

  1. 5 out of 5

    MsAprilVincent

    Aside from a few differences--living in the 1950s, being British, not being a teacher, being actively involved in church--Mildred Lathbury could easily be me. She's in her early 30s, she's unmarried, people keep telling her about their problems and expecting her to fix them, men think she's in love with them just because she's single, and she prefers living by herself because someone else would just mess everything up. And here's another thing that I noticed: her friends and neighbors would often Aside from a few differences--living in the 1950s, being British, not being a teacher, being actively involved in church--Mildred Lathbury could easily be me. She's in her early 30s, she's unmarried, people keep telling her about their problems and expecting her to fix them, men think she's in love with them just because she's single, and she prefers living by herself because someone else would just mess everything up. And here's another thing that I noticed: her friends and neighbors would often ask her to do things in a tone that suggested, "Oh, well, since you're single, YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO, so could you please _______ for me?" That is annoying, and very accurate. I am going to start referring to myself as an Excellent Woman. I'm going to put it on my cards.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Fabian

    With a sweetness reminiscent of Edith Wharton's gorgeous classic "The Age of Innocence," "Excellent Women" is proof, not solely of female excellence, but of the overall human goodness. Nothing short of miraculous, this novel about a wallflower who knows just how shitty men can often treat their counterparts, & how with much ease the ill treatment is endured, is both a classic & a must! I have never read a more compassionate or sympathetic voice, like that of our heroine's. Also, the quantity of With a sweetness reminiscent of Edith Wharton's gorgeous classic "The Age of Innocence," "Excellent Women" is proof, not solely of female excellence, but of the overall human goodness. Nothing short of miraculous, this novel about a wallflower who knows just how shitty men can often treat their counterparts, & how with much ease the ill treatment is endured, is both a classic & a must! I have never read a more compassionate or sympathetic voice, like that of our heroine's. Also, the quantity of tea drunk by the players is tantamount to the quantities of cigarettes smoked by an opposite crew of mobsters, ruffians, or killers. It is verry hard not to be wholly taken aback by the seamless prose of the excellent Miss Pym!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    I've read this many times and have both a kindle version and a paperback. Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary women leading ordinary lives. They don't have interesting, exciting jobs or adventures and their personal lives consist of doing flowers for the church or manning a booth at a church fete. This sounds horrible and tedious, but it is exactly the opposite; her books are funny and sweet and excellent, just like her women. I've read this many times and have both a kindle version and a paperback. Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary women leading ordinary lives. They don't have interesting, exciting jobs or adventures and their personal lives consist of doing flowers for the church or manning a booth at a church fete. This sounds horrible and tedious, but it is exactly the opposite; her books are funny and sweet and excellent, just like her women.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Laysee

    For the past four days, I kept company with some excellent gentlewomen in the UK and had a truly delightful time. In the midst of stifling social restrictions as the pandemic continues to hold sway over us, it is no small treat to steal away to post-war London, drink copious pots of tea, slip unnoticed into an incense-filled cathedral, browse at numerous jumble sales, eavesdrop on the latest gossip about the vicar; in short, lose myself in another life. The heroine is Ms Mildred Lathsbury, a thir For the past four days, I kept company with some excellent gentlewomen in the UK and had a truly delightful time. In the midst of stifling social restrictions as the pandemic continues to hold sway over us, it is no small treat to steal away to post-war London, drink copious pots of tea, slip unnoticed into an incense-filled cathedral, browse at numerous jumble sales, eavesdrop on the latest gossip about the vicar; in short, lose myself in another life. The heroine is Ms Mildred Lathsbury, a thirty-year-old woman who lives alone in an apartment with a shared bathroom. Here’s her introduction to herself, which made me eager to make her acquaintance: ‘I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’ I enjoyed her self-deprecating humor. True to form, she works for an organization which helps impoverished gentlewomen, a cause that is near to her heart. Mildred finds herself busy with other people’s business and unwittingly, carrying their burden. It begins with the new tenant couple who lives a floor below her flat. Helena and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier have a rocky marriage and each runs to her for a listening ear and a pot of tea. It does not help that she finds Rocky alarmingly charming. He is a naval officer whose job is to entertain the WREN (Women's Royal Naval Service) officers in Italy. [I had to google WREN.] I do not blame her as Rocky is very likeable. Two other men like her company and seek her out but they are not exactly suitors or likely life partners. Father Julian Malory, a bachelor priest, is believed by many to be Mildred’s ‘property’, and things become really interesting when he rents out a room in his vicarage to a good-looking clergyman’s widow. Mildred has a long, firm and enviable friendship with Julian and his unmarried sister. Then, there is Everard Bone, an anthropologist whom Helena, a fellow anthropologist, finds more attractive than her own husband. Everard is smart, elegant, grouchy, and standoffish but even he begins to find Mildred congenial company. Of Everard, Mildred thinks: ‘I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.” I was eager to know how Mildred’s life would change. Barbara Pym captured perceptively the liminal space between a platonic friendship and romance. It is delicate as feelings are unspoken and their true states only guessed at with risk of misinterpretation. Mildred admits to ‘a gladness I did not feel’ when Julian whom she does not regard as a potential spouse makes plans to wed. It is interesting too to see how for some people, taking care of others’ burdens is part of a fuller life. Reflecting on Everard’s invitation to Mildred to cook a meal for him, one she initially declined, Mildred thought, ”I promised that I would cook the meat and I felt better for having done so, for it seemed like a kind of atonement, a burden in a way and yet perhaps because of being a burden, a pleasure.” By the end of this novel, I have had many pots of tea with a loaf of bread, a pot of jam, a slab of butter and a cake. I would like to have tea like this for real. Excellent Women is a veritable treat best savored, you guessed it, over many cups of tea. A handful of quotes I liked: “Yes, I like sitting at a table in the sun,’ I agreed, but I’m afraid I’m one of those typical English tourists who always wants a cup of tea.” ‘Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.’ “I have never been very much given to falling in love and have often felt sorry that I have so far missed out not only the experience of marriage, but the perhaps even greater and more ennobling one of having loved and lost.” ‘Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?’ ‘... life was like that for most of us - the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic live affairs of history or fiction.’ ‘After the service I went home and cooked my fish. Cod seemed a suitable dish for a rejected one and I ate it humbly without any kind of sauce or relish.’ “I’m afraid women take their pleasures very sadly. Few of them know how to run light-hearted flirtations - the nice ones, that is. They cling on to these little bits of romance that may have happened years ago. Semper Fidelis, you know.” - Rocky to Mildred about the Wren women who fell in love with him ‘I began piling cups and saucers on to a tray. I supposed it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place to choose than the sink, where neither of the men would follow me?’

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    This review first appeared on my blog Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books. Awhile ago, I asked for recommendations for books that take place in small villages. I'd just done a re-read of Emma and followed that up with An Accomplished Woman, and I was really enjoying the scale of the worlds and the consequent depth of observation that this allowed for- which is why I asked for more. One that came up a couple of times but hadn't made it to the top yet was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I wish that I had l This review first appeared on my blog Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books. Awhile ago, I asked for recommendations for books that take place in small villages. I'd just done a re-read of Emma and followed that up with An Accomplished Woman, and I was really enjoying the scale of the worlds and the consequent depth of observation that this allowed for- which is why I asked for more. One that came up a couple of times but hadn't made it to the top yet was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I wish that I had listened to the recommenders and gotten to this sooner, because this is everything I wanted and more. Excellent Women focuses on Mildred Lethbury, a thirtyish woman living in London in the early 1950s. While this might not sound like it qualifies as a "small village" book, that would be to confuse the London of today with the London of then. As it was in the early 1800s when Emma's Highbury was a village, the various neighborhoods of the city formed small, often self-contained, communities of their own within the larger city. This was especially true in the bombed-out postwar city as people made the most of what they had and tried to put some semblance of a life back together. Mildred may have had slightly more mobility than the small town ladies of most village novels (she went further downtown to work), but this didn't affect her outlook overly much. Her world, as the book opens, is her local church, its vicar, and its crowd of "excellent women" of the title, who crowd about the church doing "good works"- her greatest excursion is her Wednesday trip to services at another church downtown whose pastor, due to the war, is still undecided, and receives new visiting priests each week. It's a comfortable, predictable life, in which Mildred does a lot of good, and has friends who care for her and a world she understands. Unfortunately for her (or fortunately depending on how you look at this story, ultimately), Mildred lives in a house with two apartments. So, in the first pages of this novel, into this comfortable life steps some new, highly unconventional downstairs neighbors, the Napiers. The Napiers have newfangled ideas (Helena is an anthropologist) and glamorous pasts (Rockingham-yup, that's his name- spent the war in Italy, and Helena did research in Africa). Their marriage is not decorous and supportive (not that Mildred would dream of eavesdropping- she just cannot choose but to overhear some things they say), it is full of yelling and conflicts. Worse, they have unconventional acquaintances, like fellow anthropologist Everard Bone, a most irritating man. Trouble also comes from another neighbor taken in at the vicarage with amiable Julian and his sister Winifred, trying to help with the national housing shortage: Mrs. Gray. There is just something one cannot quite like about her if you know what she means, and if you've ever read a book like this, you totally do. Or you will, before long. (Well done, Pym, I wanted to scratch this lady's eyes out from my sheer depth of recognition of her awfulness within pages of meeting her.) Mildred navigates these complications like the excellent woman she is of course, but things get quite upsetting. As you can see, it's all very small scale. The troubles of five or six families in a country village, to the life (more like three or four, really). But I finished it in a day, and there are lots of reasons why. First, Pym did a great job with her first-person narration. I think making Mildred, sweet, apparently dependable Mildred, an unreliable narrator, filtering events through her anxious, well-meaning mind, was a very strong choice. It humanized and gave interest to a character who could have been laughed at and satirized from the outside, Thackeray-style, super easily. Pym did poke gentle fun at her, but from the perspective of one who understands and loves this character. Occasionally it seemed like Pym could perhaps become slightly defensive of her character, which I suspect was perhaps an overidentification with her. I also understand that she was likely writing for a similar audience, much in the same manner that A Provincial Lady was (who I also loved and need to read more of), and it didn't obtrude enough to be truly bothersome. Besides, the rhythm of Mildred's quiet, determined, well-intentioned mind did the work of gathering sympathy all on its own. Which leads me to my second reason for loving this. This is yet another in a series of wonderful books about women quietly rebelling that I've been finding and reading for years, books about "extra" women, or "unwanted" women, women who are expected to bear the burdens of others, women who rebel in their own ways-not with violence or dramatic displays, but simply by preferring not to. Books like Lolly Willowes and The Awakening is what I mean- and Excellent Women is another high quality entry into this list. Mildred refuses to be the sighing spinster desperately angling for a husband, desperate for romance, that society might perceive her to be, or the eternally perky, "useful" woman- despite trying her very best to be the latter sometimes, despite occasionally wishing to be the former. Mildred is a person- the scene where she refuses a date that could possibly be romantic from a man because she assumes that he is inviting her over to cook for him (he literally calls and is like "I have some meat to be cooked", so you can forgive her), made me want to cheer, as did the scene where a man makes a romantic overture for clearly the wrong reasons and way too soon and she has none of it. I love stories about women who are secure enough to be true to themselves, and it turns out that this story, despite Mildred's struggles with the roles people assume she will perform for them, is ultimately about that. Mildred is a person, and she will set some firm (if quiet) limits about that when she can. I wish she had done it more, sooner, and louder, but don't we all wish that for ourselves and others? How often do we achieve it? Mildred does it enough to make me feel a great respect for her, enough to inspire me to hope that I might be able to do the same for myself one day. Finally, I think this was all so effective because Pym did a great job immersing the reader in her world without ever being preachy or doing a great deal of obvious world building. Like many great writers before her, she let the dialogue and thoughts and actions of her characters fill in the rest, with only minimal physical description to fill it out. Perhaps this was because she was writing for a contemporary audience who already lived in this world- but I didn't need to live there to see the colors it was painted in in spite of that, which speaks volumes of her writing. I loved the oblique, offhand references to the aftermath of the war- the church she goes to Wednesday service at is always full because half of the church is still bombed out and unrepaired, so much of the plot is about new and unlikely neighbors because people are scrambling for housing in a half-built city, people showing generosity by using their rations of special items on guests, the number of widows and single women trying to make their way, the vicar in the bombed out church missing because he had been killed in the war, the way marriages were still being affected by the war's long separation. This is a story about how the war continued to affect people for years afterward, told in the most everyday sort of way, without any sort of drama. Pym tells us only the surface, but the surface is more than enough to hint at what must underlie some of the more subtle shifts in her character's mind, where her periodic restlessness may come from, the anxiety present in some characters' behavior, and the unchanging nature of others. All in all, this book will be exactly what you'd expect. But it will be that at high quality, it will be that with unexpected sympathy, with grace and with quiet pride. And you'll remember Mildred, you'll remember her far longer than you would any of her real life number. And with that, I think Pym would be content.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kim Kaso

    I am re-reading Barbara Pym's books this summer to lift my spirits as I recover from physical injury. I find I can only take so much emotional stress before I retreat to her closely observed lives full of the quotidian routines of the women who are the backbone of the Anglican Church. Flower arranging, knitting, polishing church brasses, it is all part of the detail of their quiet lives as loss of love is accepted with resignation, spinsters find a way of "making do" on limited budgets, and the I am re-reading Barbara Pym's books this summer to lift my spirits as I recover from physical injury. I find I can only take so much emotional stress before I retreat to her closely observed lives full of the quotidian routines of the women who are the backbone of the Anglican Church. Flower arranging, knitting, polishing church brasses, it is all part of the detail of their quiet lives as loss of love is accepted with resignation, spinsters find a way of "making do" on limited budgets, and the seasons pass marked by jumble sales and church festivals. Many cups of tea are provided as life's crises are negotiated, with the occasional coffee or medicinal brandy, and one falls asleep knowing there are still quiet pockets of the world filled with excellent women.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Claire Fuller

    Why didn't any of you shout louder about reading Barbara Pym? I can't believe I'm nearly 50 and I've only just got round to reading her, because everything was perfect and lovely and wonderful about this book. So beautifully English. An 'ordinary' single woman, Mildred, in the 1950s, goes to church, goes on holiday with her old school friend, drinks an awful lot of tea, helps out in a charity for gentlewomen who have fallen on hard times, has another cup of tea with some slightly stale cake, den Why didn't any of you shout louder about reading Barbara Pym? I can't believe I'm nearly 50 and I've only just got round to reading her, because everything was perfect and lovely and wonderful about this book. So beautifully English. An 'ordinary' single woman, Mildred, in the 1950s, goes to church, goes on holiday with her old school friend, drinks an awful lot of tea, helps out in a charity for gentlewomen who have fallen on hard times, has another cup of tea with some slightly stale cake, denies that she was ever in love with the vicar, more tea...and then a glamorous couple move into the flat below her. Some things change, but not really much - even more tea is drunk, but also a bit of brandy. It is witty and sharp, and almost sad. Mildred is wonderful. If you've ever read any Barbara Comyns, it's a bit like her books, but not as surreal. Highly recommended. I shall be going out shortly for tea and some more books by Barbara Pym. www.clairefuller.co.uk

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kalliope

    It is completely absurd to set out to read this without a nice cup of tea at the side. The fact that its edition is a lovely one, hardback, part of the Virago Modern Classics Collection, with a wonderful design –Striped Petal—by Orla Kiely, makes a further argument for having the tea on a side table. Barbara Pym had been under my radar, but I had not read any of her novels yet. This one came as part of my bookshop subscription and I was delighted when I opened the package. I was even more deligh It is completely absurd to set out to read this without a nice cup of tea at the side. The fact that its edition is a lovely one, hardback, part of the Virago Modern Classics Collection, with a wonderful design –Striped Petal—by Orla Kiely, makes a further argument for having the tea on a side table. Barbara Pym had been under my radar, but I had not read any of her novels yet. This one came as part of my bookshop subscription and I was delighted when I opened the package. I was even more delighted once I began to read it. Not for nothing has she been compared to Jane Austen, Pym being the 20thCentury version. This is a world that unfolds in some areas of London, restricted, with an ongoing churchy concern, and with the attitudes, more open, towards humanity of anthropologists. Observations about the differences between men and women (the excellent ones) also make their way into the lines of the novel, as delightful as sweet biscuits that heighten the taste of the tea. Humour, ever so subtle, is already in the title, an expression that Pym picked up from her literary ancestor, our dear Austen. Humour the bookshop revealed to have when they sent me, the following month,The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much. So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back. Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons an I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much. So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back. Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons and lengthy intercessions. They always spoke to my mother – they had know her since she was a small girl coming to church with her own mother – and whenever something was going on, be it a coffee morning or a jumble sale, they were always there and they were always busy. When I was a small girl I thought that they were ancient, but looking back I think most of them would have been in their sixties. Years layer my mother used to visit one of those ladies when she was housebound, and I remember my mother telling me that she was always so welcoming and so appreciative. Not long after she did her nephew appeared on our doorstep with two carved elephants. My mother had mentioned in passing that she remembered her parents having a similar pair, and she had made a note that nother was to have her elephants. I’m rambling, but I’m going to come to the point now. Mildred Lathbury – the excellent woman who tells this story was so real, so utterly believable that I am quite prepared to believe that I might have been looking at her back and her hat back in the day. Mildred Lathbury was the daughter of a clergyman, and she had been brought up in a country vicarage, but when she found herself alone in the world she moved to a small flat near the Anglican church that she regularly attended. She was a stalwart of that church and had formed a close friendship with Winifred Mallory. She was the vicar’s sister and, as both sister and brother were ummarried, they lived together in the vicarage. It had been suggested that Mildred would be an excellent wife for Julian Mallory … New arrivals heralded change. First new neighbours moved into the flat below Mildred’s. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, arrived first, and Mildred was taken aback when Helena spoke to her freely and frankly, when she announced that she didn’t go to church, when she said that she didn’t believe in housework. Her husband, Rockingham had just come out of the navy and was on his way home from Italy. Mildred wasn’t sure if she liked Helena but she was intrigued by her, and by new possibilities. And then the Mallory’s decided to let a room. Allegra Grey was a clergyman’s widow and she seemed to be the ideal person to share the vicarage. She wasn’t, and some worked that out more quickly than others. There was much speculation, and a good deal of gossiping Mildred’s relationship with the Napiers was lovely to watch. She was flattered to be asked for help and advice, and she came to realise that marriage was far, far more complicated than she had realised. And that she was rather more involved than she really wanted to be. Events at the vicarage offered interesting parallels and contrasts. Church events provided a wonderful backdrop. And I haven’t even mentioned Everest Bone … Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely. Mildred’s voice rang completely true, and I did like her. She was a genuinely nice woman, practical intelligent, and dependable. She didn’t think marriage was the answer to everything, she liked having her independence and her own space, but she did rather like the idea of being married, of having a companion in life. And now I have just one more word – excellent!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I am honestly not sure what to make of this book. I initially discovered this book (and author) through a random Amazon-crawl, where I assume it was recommended to me based on some of my other highly-rated books. I vaguely remember reading that Excellent Women was satirical, funny, biting, etc., and there were several comparisons to Jane Austen. I don't share the crush that virtually all well-educated white girls seem to have for Jane Austen (despite being a well-educated white girl myself), but I am honestly not sure what to make of this book. I initially discovered this book (and author) through a random Amazon-crawl, where I assume it was recommended to me based on some of my other highly-rated books. I vaguely remember reading that Excellent Women was satirical, funny, biting, etc., and there were several comparisons to Jane Austen. I don't share the crush that virtually all well-educated white girls seem to have for Jane Austen (despite being a well-educated white girl myself), but I did enjoy Sense and Sensibility well enough for me to take a second look at any author who's compared to Austen. The main character of Excellent Women is a single 30-year-old woman named Mildred who lives in London in the 1950s. This being the '50s, and Mildred being 30 already, she is considered to have entered the spinster stage and is treated very patronizingly by everyone around her, as though she had suddenly gone mad and started collecting vast amounts of cats. The plot of the book describes her very provincial and narrow life, which consists of making tea, eating really sad lunches of lettuce and cheese, and interfering with/getting dragged into other people's lives and helping to sort out their problems. There are a few witty, clever lines in this book, but any pleasure they might have provided is withheld since they almost seem to be delivered unconsciously, as though Mildred could never imagine herself as someone who ever says anything funny. In fact, the moments that were supposed to be funny had a very sad quality to me, as though the author were rubbing it in our faces how miserable the main character was, but somehow also expecting us to be a sport and laugh anyway. I kept thinking, 'Oh, Mildred seems unassuming, but this is where she's about to assert herself and become a real, three-dimensional person!' But it never happened. Instead of being redeemed, she just slipped slowly and sadly into her permanent role as a doormat and sounding-board for other people, and her individuality was lost in a bland mist of apathy and tea-making. There's one scene where Mildred is at a church committee meeting and one of the women leading the meeting starts making tea for everyone. Mildred, who has already consumed about four cups of tea that day, feebly suggests that perhaps they don't need tea for this meeting. Here's how that scene continues: "...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." I recognize that this scene has a big 'laugh here' sign on it, but I just found Mildred's complete acquiescence and sheepishness to be depressing. There is the seed of social commentary in this book – after all, Mildred does get weary of constantly meeting everyone's demands and expectations towards the end of the book, and seems on the verge of telling everyone off – but instead of taking that social commentary to its logical conclusion by having Mildred rebel, however mildly, Pym takes the alternate route of having Mildred sink into resignation and acceptance of her pathetic lot in life. In fact, the book ends with her getting roped into doing some clerical work for a pompous scholar who's a friend of hers – without pay, of course. The presentation of women in this book is really unsettling (as it often is in Jane Austen's books, too). Mildred (who we're presumably meant to identify with?) is a fussy, boring, spineless drone, and the foil to Mildred is a woman named Helena, who is an anthropologist. Helena is described as being passionately interested in her work and committed to her field of study. She is also described as being an awful housewife who leaves dishes unwashed, rooms untidied, and meals unprepared. In the author's estimation, you can either be an intellectual or a good wife, but not both; smart or feminine, but not both; interesting or good, but not both. There are no other options. There are also only two options in terms of virtue or goodness: attending church every single day or being an atheist. Mildred attends church every day (sometimes several times a day, it seems – she goes to church the way some people now watch TV), has an unquestioning obedience to tradition and authority, and has a simpering, saccharine view of spirituality, while Helena, the anthropologist, is not religious at all, and is portrayed as a crass philistine with no compassion or virtue. Again, Pym expects us to believe that these two stereotypes are the only options when choosing how to live a moral life. I realize that comedy as a genre trades in stereotypes all the time – it's the universal aspects of human experience that make us laugh in recognition and delight – but the stereotypes in this book seemed very confining, un-funny, and almost politically aggressive, as though Pym were daring any of her readers to be so arrogant as to claim that they fit into neither category. It's possible that Pym was being more clever than I'm giving her credit for, and was calling attention to how the 1950s warped women's lives as a way of justifying and explaining the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. But her negative portrayal of Helena – who could have represented 'the smart, liberated woman of the future' in a positive way – indicates to me that Pym wasn't really thinking along those lines. Overall, not nearly the snarky, witty romp I was promised.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Antoinette

    Interesting title “Excellent Women”. Doesn’t every woman want to be an excellent woman? Well not if it means you are over 30, considered a spinster and at everyone’s disposal. You do good deeds and are expected to be a placid soul who just wants to be a door mat for everyone. Thanks goodness, I will never be considered an excellent woman! This book was first published in 1952. Depicts post war London, where rationing is still in effect ( a celebration is in order if you have any meat), and the af Interesting title “Excellent Women”. Doesn’t every woman want to be an excellent woman? Well not if it means you are over 30, considered a spinster and at everyone’s disposal. You do good deeds and are expected to be a placid soul who just wants to be a door mat for everyone. Thanks goodness, I will never be considered an excellent woman! This book was first published in 1952. Depicts post war London, where rationing is still in effect ( a celebration is in order if you have any meat), and the aftermath of bombing is still in evidence. I loved reading about that period of time and about the women of that time. Certainly very restricted and dominated by men. Mildred was such an endearing character- she acquiesced to her expected role, but underneath she balked at it. After her new neighbours, the Napier’s moved into the lower flat, her eyes were opened to other possibilities. “ Let me hasten to add that 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, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.” -Mildred. “Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”-Mildred “ I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman. I do hope you’re not thinking of getting married.” William to Mildred. This book is written in first person, so Mildred is front and centre throughout. She is an excellent woman, no doubt, but she has a rebellious side as well. This was such a delightful, humorous book. I absolutely loved it. In saying that, I would love to see how a 20 - 40 year old would react to this novel. I could just envision the cringes and disbelief.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lynne King

    The statement made by Mildred Lathbury in chapter one of the first page of this book sets the scene for this quite remarkable work. I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. Living in an apartment in a house, in a shabby part of London, where she has to share the bathroom wit The statement made by Mildred Lathbury in chapter one of the first page of this book sets the scene for this quite remarkable work. I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. Living in an apartment in a house, in a shabby part of London, where she has to share the bathroom with another couple, the arrival of the Napiers - Helen an anthropologist and her husband Rockingham (AKA Rocky) who is in the Navy - proves to be intriguing. Also, what an extraordinary name he has! Strange, old fashioned names stud the book: Everard Bone, a colleague of Helen Napier; Mr Mallett and Mr Conybeare - church wardens; Julian Malory, the Vicar and his sister Mildred, etc. The story (set after the end of the Second World War, with its ration cards) on the whole is rather dull and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the way that the book is written is quite inspiring and a pleasure to read. I also was rather taken with the poetry that is shown throughout the book. The one by Christina Rossetti is quite touching: "Better by far you should forget and smile, Than that you should remember and be sad ..." I just couldn't put this amazing book down and I'm now reading "Some Tame Gazelle" by Barbara Pym.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Teresa

    George Gissing’s “odd women” have become Barbara Pym’s “excellent” ones. The latter are also odd, but then so is everyone in Pym’s humorous, even hilarious at times (okay, definitely one time), novel. The Victorian women Gissing’s Rhoda wanted to train for the workforce, the ones who were too many to be married off, have now, post WWII, gone into the workforce—or not. If these excellent (unmarried) women are financially independent, they volunteer, especially at their church; they organize fundr George Gissing’s “odd women” have become Barbara Pym’s “excellent” ones. The latter are also odd, but then so is everyone in Pym’s humorous, even hilarious at times (okay, definitely one time), novel. The Victorian women Gissing’s Rhoda wanted to train for the workforce, the ones who were too many to be married off, have now, post WWII, gone into the workforce—or not. If these excellent (unmarried) women are financially independent, they volunteer, especially at their church; they organize fundraising activities; they sew curtains for curates; they make endless cups of tea for meetings; they wash up after; they are amanuenses. In other words (and in Pym’s words) they still do all the jobs men don’t want to do. The first-person narrator is self-aware, but also not. She tricks herself into thinking she’s not attracted to certain men—of course, it’s a defense mechanism. Even though she reads cookbooks to help herself fall asleep, she’s a reader of poetry as well, an imaginative person. She tells herself stories on her walks; she gets things “wrong” (and right) as storytellers are wont to do. I’m always impressed when authors pull off a first-person narrator telling the reader more than the narrator herself is aware she’s giving away. I found that the book got funnier as it went along. I chuckled out loud at a line near the end and had to reread it, wondering if it was audacity on Pym’s part or an innuendo that wouldn’t have meant what it might mean now. Regardless, it was hilarious (at least to me).

  14. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    “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.” Excellent Women is a 1952 comedy of manners set in 1950s Britain. It provides a look at relationships and life in post-war England. With its sharp wit and biting irony, I could not have found a more enjoyable book to read or (new to me) author to explore. Mildred Lathbury is an intelligent, amicable keen observer who reluctantly become “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.” Excellent Women is a 1952 comedy of manners set in 1950s Britain. It provides a look at relationships and life in post-war England. With its sharp wit and biting irony, I could not have found a more enjoyable book to read or (new to me) author to explore. Mildred Lathbury is an intelligent, amicable keen observer who reluctantly becomes entangled with helping others out of troubling situations. Self-depreciating at times, “I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.” Mildred lives in a divided house that shares a bathroom with the other tenant. Her new neighbors, Helena and Rocky Napier, an anthropologist, and a military officer, brings unexpected energy to her little abode. Through them, Mildred is exposed to an up-close view of marriage and through Helena’s work a new acquaintance in Everard Bone. Being an “excellent woman” herself, Mildred is a volunteer worker helping women and the local church. Julian Malory, the next-door vicar, and his sister Winifred are friends of Mildred’s and of the church in which she attends. Dora Caldicote is an old school friend and roommate of Mildred’s that recently moved out to accept a teaching position. Dora and her brother William make up the realm of Mildred’s peers. I listened to the audio narrated by Jayne Entwistle, whom I am a huge fan of and recommend her work. Entwistle’s voice added the perfect edge to Mildred’s thoughts and mumblings that added to the feel of the character. This is an excellent book to listen too. In fact, I listened to it twice because it was so charming. Hearing Jayne Entwistle’s voice paired with Barbara Pym’s characterization of Mildred Lathbury, I could not help but think of Alan Bradley’s delightfully intelligent and sharp-witted teen character, Flavia de Luce (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). Pym’s character could be the source from which Flavia was molded. Despite the age difference in the characters, they both live in 1950s England, display a knack for wit drawn from observation, and find it hard to avoid doing anything they feel is their duty. I loved how Pym frequently weaves the condescending reference about “excellent women” into the story. Through the simplistic plot and subplot, the reader is shown distinct types of men, women, and relationships. You get a feel for the changing norm regarding manners and the emerging role of women in this time. This is a book I will treasure returning to again. It’s no wonder why it is included on notable reading lists. Not much happens in the story, it is the relationships, flaws, and humor that are satisfying. If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm or Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, be sure read Excellent Women.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    I did not like this book. I found it a total bore from start to finish. I didn't laugh once. It is supposed to have satirical humor. I found no humor at all. The book is about a single woman, Mildred Lathbury. She is in her thirties. She is living in London near Victoria Station in the years following the Second World War. History is scarcely referred to other than mention of food rationing, a lack of commodities and a bombed building or two. Her days consist of eating - meals and tea - over and I did not like this book. I found it a total bore from start to finish. I didn't laugh once. It is supposed to have satirical humor. I found no humor at all. The book is about a single woman, Mildred Lathbury. She is in her thirties. She is living in London near Victoria Station in the years following the Second World War. History is scarcely referred to other than mention of food rationing, a lack of commodities and a bombed building or two. Her days consist of eating - meals and tea - over and over again. How one can eat a meal and go an hour later to tea and an hour later to the next meal is beyond me. If not sipping tea or munching on bread and jam, often in the company of a friend, she is arranging a church jumble sale, a church bazaar or some other church function. Her father had been a clergyman. Both mother and father are now dead. Other than these things she is constantly, constantly helping her acquaintances, to the extent of total self-effacement! Or …..wondering about love. Is she happy? No. And so life continues. My God, why doesn't she put her foot down? Setting no limits, doing everything for everybody, she is used by all. A person must set limits, don't you think? No, women do not have to get married, but they do have to do something of interest with their lives. Ordinary lives are fine as long as they give one a modicum of self-fulfillment, and I do not believe Mildred Lathbury comes near to any such feeling. This is how I see the book. You may see it differently. The Hachette audiobook is said to be narrated by Jonathan Keeble, but that is wrong; he only reads the two introductions. Don't worry, they don't say very much; only very general information about the author's writing is set forth. It is Jerry Halligan who reads the story. She reads at a good pace and with appropriate intonations for the story's diverse characters. The narration is fine. This book annoyed me. If you let yourself be stepped on, whose fault is that?

  16. 4 out of 5

    Malia

    Just what I was looking for! This is charming, witty and introduced me to the wonderfully observant Mildred Lathbury. My first book by Pym, but not my last! Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com Just what I was looking for! This is charming, witty and introduced me to the wonderfully observant Mildred Lathbury. My first book by Pym, but not my last! Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com

  17. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

    I read several Barbara Pym novels 35-40 years ago, including Excellent Women. This one is even better now, second time around. Book gets off to a slow start, telling the story of Mildred, in the London of 1950, a thirtyish single woman who works part-time for a volunteer organization devoted to improving the lot of impoverished gentlewomen and who is actively involved in her High Anglican church (and in the lives of the church father and his sister). And somehow she gets involved, in subtle way I read several Barbara Pym novels 35-40 years ago, including Excellent Women. This one is even better now, second time around. Book gets off to a slow start, telling the story of Mildred, in the London of 1950, a thirtyish single woman who works part-time for a volunteer organization devoted to improving the lot of impoverished gentlewomen and who is actively involved in her High Anglican church (and in the lives of the church father and his sister). And somehow she gets involved, in subtle ways, in other lives, too. By midway through this short novel, the humor is building and it comes from the characters. Very enjoyable and somehow particularly pleasant and reassuring to read at this moment in time. Greatly enjoyed and plan on reading more Barbara Pym.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Magrat Ajostiernos

    Mildred me ha conquistado! :D

  19. 4 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    I fear I may have been a little severe in my assessment of Ms Pym so, as I'm sure her legions of fans will be delighted to hear, I sat myself out on the terrace yesterday afternoon and read this one straight through, cover to cover, in 5 hours. Quartet in Autumn was driech: dull sad people leading sad dull lives. This one was at least subtly humorous, but, weirdly enough, hardly less depressing for a' that. The humour In post-WW2 Britain you still have to register with the butcher, and (pre-Elizabe I fear I may have been a little severe in my assessment of Ms Pym so, as I'm sure her legions of fans will be delighted to hear, I sat myself out on the terrace yesterday afternoon and read this one straight through, cover to cover, in 5 hours. Quartet in Autumn was driech: dull sad people leading sad dull lives. This one was at least subtly humorous, but, weirdly enough, hardly less depressing for a' that. The humour In post-WW2 Britain you still have to register with the butcher, and (pre-Elizabeth David) spaghetti is something that requires a lesson in how to twist it round the fork from a serviceman who was posted in Italy so knows about their exotic cuisine. Yet our heroine has a copy of Chinese Cookery at her bedside, to send her back to sleep when she is woken in the small hours. I thought that was funny. (Actually, there is an inordinate obsession with food and its embarrassments, unsurprising I suppose as it was still rationed. Breakfast, lunch, then tea in the afternoon, with bread and butter, maybe even jam, and always the question of cake - is there cake? Or not? How old is it? And then supper not much later, and inviting people in for coffee - in the evening? With biscuits. Or cake. If there is any, that is.) Mostly the humour consists of the kind of smoothly unobtrusive irony that can easily get overlooked: that spaghetti expert was a Naval Officer, new to this neighbourhood of London. The vicar (Julian) wonders if he and his wife will attend church, for 'They that go down to the sea in ships: and occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord: and His Wonders in the deep,' Julian said, half to himself. I did not like to spoil the beauty of the words by pointing out that Rockingham Napier had spent most of his service arranging the Admiral's social life. Of course he may have seen the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. Rockingham Napier - now there's a preposterous name. And our heroine: Mildred. Of course! Mild-mannered Mildred, everybody's doormat. Allegra Gray - can't you just guess that she is not to be trusted? And indeed, like the fat ladies on the saucy postcards that put in a bijou appearance when Mild Mildred takes a Devonshire holiday, all the characters here are overdrawn, just enough to be self-conscious caricatures of themselves. There's a nod nod wink wink that goes with these 'excellent women', the mainstay of the church jumble sale and protectors of hapless men, all of whom seem to be prey to the other kind of women, not the excellent ones but the feckless alluring ones. The Allegras rather than the Mildreds of this world. So, realistic there then. No cheaply plotted romantic happy end. But Mildred is busier, and happier than she was at the beginning, so it ends well does it not? A Comedy then, if not a Romantic Comedy. Depressing for a'that 'The rejected ones'. That's how Mildred sees herself and the other jumble sale stalwarts and that's where it stops being funny. The women who have a career don't seem any better off, battling over whether you have to wear a hat in church, I ask you. (view spoiler)[Mind you, have we moved far since then? See present battle over whether a working woman has to wear high heels. (hide spoiler)] And those mind-boggling attitudes: at just over thirty (!) you are set in your ways, you have nothing to look forward to but more of the same. A lofty concern with whether people are not just respectable, but worthy. What, pray, do you have to do to qualify as worthy? What does that even mean, worthy? Hollow lives.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    {4.5} Mildred is an "excellent woman," always available to make tea, wash up and listen to the troubles of others. I read this novel at just the right time in my life to appreciate it. (I did try to read Pym a couple decades ago and found her bland and dull.) I rooted for Mildred through her self-doubt and guilt and loved her wry humor and quizzical observations. I miss her already! {4.5} Mildred is an "excellent woman," always available to make tea, wash up and listen to the troubles of others. I read this novel at just the right time in my life to appreciate it. (I did try to read Pym a couple decades ago and found her bland and dull.) I rooted for Mildred through her self-doubt and guilt and loved her wry humor and quizzical observations. I miss her already!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Idarah

    Although this wasn't a dashing romantic tale like Jane Eyre or even Pride and Prejudice I thought it was great. It was slow in some areas, but I still found it rich and thrilling. Everyday life and excursions are related with humor and depth. Church gossip and those "delicate" marital concerns that can arise when laundry is aired publicly, were so hilarious to watch as an outsider along with the protagonist. I found it a bit feminist as well...in the sense that not all women need to be married to Although this wasn't a dashing romantic tale like Jane Eyre or even Pride and Prejudice I thought it was great. It was slow in some areas, but I still found it rich and thrilling. Everyday life and excursions are related with humor and depth. Church gossip and those "delicate" marital concerns that can arise when laundry is aired publicly, were so hilarious to watch as an outsider along with the protagonist. I found it a bit feminist as well...in the sense that not all women need to be married to justify their womanhood. And this idea was rather drastic for 1950s London. Pym was ahead of her time, without needing to fill the pages inbetween with sex. I also learned some useful life lessons: how to "properly" clean one's kitchen, how to prepare a fine pot of tea, and that meddling (when for altruistic purposes) isn't always wrong. "Men are not nearly so helpless and pathetic as we sometimes like to imagine them, and on the whole they run their lives better than we do ours." "Why is it that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all..."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I enjoyed reading this - especially in contrast to the dry Janet Frame autobiography, and then about the two-thirds mark I just totally lost interest. I'm not sure whether this is me or the book. There is a point in all novels where you expect the development towards a climax or crisis and this didn't happen. When I finally reached the end I understood that we had been strung-a-long, with Ms Pym inducing us to behave like all the excellent women surrounding Mildred, prodding her gently in the di I enjoyed reading this - especially in contrast to the dry Janet Frame autobiography, and then about the two-thirds mark I just totally lost interest. I'm not sure whether this is me or the book. There is a point in all novels where you expect the development towards a climax or crisis and this didn't happen. When I finally reached the end I understood that we had been strung-a-long, with Ms Pym inducing us to behave like all the excellent women surrounding Mildred, prodding her gently in the direction of marriage and happiness. Ms Pym ends - with no resolution!! Forcing us to realize that we (the reader) have also fallen for the trap of Romance - at no point have we considered an alternative for Mildred. The publication date is 1952 and the novel is set in the same time period - early 50s. Mildred is the daughter of a clergy-man; with both her parents now deceased she has moved to London - the wrong side of Victoria Station and she works part-time, helping elderly gentlewomen; women who have lost their husbands and property in the war. Mildred's afternoons are taken up with her local church, St Mary's and her friends the Malorys, Julian and Winifred, brother and sister. Julian is the parish priest. Julian was hanging up his biretta on a peg in the narrow hall. Next to it hung a rather new-looking panama hat. I had never seen him wearing it and it occurred to me that perhaps he had bought it to keep until its ribbon became rusty with age and the straw itself a greyish yellow. My father had worn just such a hat and it always seemed to me to epitomise the wisdom of an old country clergyman, wisdom which Julian could not hope to attain for another twenty or thirty years. This paragraph is typical of Pym's style - I like it because of how we are given depth to Mildred's character -both her background and also her judgments and her pro-church values. These values of Mildred I liked very much - there are many occasions when she delicately defends or makes excuses for the ways of Father Julian or for the Church in general. This is particularly so when a young couple move into the flat below - Helena and Rocky, non-believers, who in rather typical fashion often adopt a mocking attitude to Mildred and her old-fashioned more simplistic lifestyle. Helena is an anthropologist and Rocky, only recently back from his navy placement in Italy, where he appears to have been responsible for the Admiral's social life. Pym's structure is remarkably elegant - if we set aside the gossipy excellent women - Mildred's friend Dora, the church helpers, Sister Blatt and the two cleaning women her own Mrs Morris and Mrs Jupp at the Vicarage - we start to see the structure. Julian Malory - is the man of God; and Everard Bone - Helena's friend and a fellow anthropologist - is the man of Science. Rocky with whom Mildred becomes enamoured - is the man of charm?, a man with no distinctive belief system - and it is from these specimens of manhood, that Mildred is to choose; with various set-backs by way of a Mrs Gray. Pym's style is light and entertaining, but she is quietly examining the post-war social changes. And the changes in values and beliefs according with these social changes, the emergent professional woman, the de-stabilization of older class structures and of course the traditional ideas of, women-in-the-home, their unpaid work etc underpinning the whole of society. Mildred is always mocking society's negative attitude towards spinsters (the unproductive) but at the same time worries about her future prospects and it is clear she also longs for love and passion. Pym, like Mildred appears to disprove the idea of Romantic Love. One of my first thoughts, as many others have noted is that Pym seems very much a 20th century Jane Austen - her novels a gentle satire on the lives of women. But if you look at that structure Pym seems unresolved - she throws up the types available for marriage - and appears dissatisfied with all - but at the same time seems unable to offer any other alternative. I suppose a subtle hint would be the new inhabitants of the flat - two ladies who have shared a life together and intend to make a living by teaching and translating Italian. I feel as if Pym is dissatisfied with marriage and with the types of male available but has not quite been able to offer or imagine another type of life for a woman. Hence the deflation/flatness at the end. Personally - my bet is on Julian - I think Mildred loves him.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    This is my introduction to the writing of Barbara Pym and thanks to Constant Reader’s Classics Corner for scheduling it for April. Mildred Lathbury, one of the titled “excellent women,” narrates the novel, introducing us to all of her neighbors, acquaintances, fellow church-goers, and the neighborhoods she travels through that are still recovering from the war. Mildred’s humor is sly and subversive and subtle, often aimed at the men around her, though women too come in for some barbed comments. This is my introduction to the writing of Barbara Pym and thanks to Constant Reader’s Classics Corner for scheduling it for April. Mildred Lathbury, one of the titled “excellent women,” narrates the novel, introducing us to all of her neighbors, acquaintances, fellow church-goers, and the neighborhoods she travels through that are still recovering from the war. Mildred’s humor is sly and subversive and subtle, often aimed at the men around her, though women too come in for some barbed comments. Many comments apply to all the excellent women who seem to live to serve the various needs of the unmarried gentlemen in their lives. Mildred is a fine example. The humor is almost always confined to Mildred’s thoughts, interspersed as a silent aside during conversation or after activities. Just quietly slipped into the text where too quick a read might miss it. Toward the end of the novel, I found myself chuckling or laughing out loud more and more. I would happily have read on and on. Pym left me wanting more. I will check out more of her library in the future.

  24. 4 out of 5

    nastya

    This is how I remember this book: This is how I remember this book:

  25. 4 out of 5

    Helle

    Stick on the kettle, put up your feet and settle into your favourite armchair with this cosy, post-WW II English novel. Barbara Pym’s world is one of brown-clad spinsters, nuns on bicycles and vicars who live with their sisters. The foreword in my beautiful Virago Modern Classics edition was written by Alexander McCall Smith, and I now see where he got much of his inspiration for his 44 Scotland Street series. The book is the literary equivalent of an English (pre-war) village with its small conf Stick on the kettle, put up your feet and settle into your favourite armchair with this cosy, post-WW II English novel. Barbara Pym’s world is one of brown-clad spinsters, nuns on bicycles and vicars who live with their sisters. The foreword in my beautiful Virago Modern Classics edition was written by Alexander McCall Smith, and I now see where he got much of his inspiration for his 44 Scotland Street series. The book is the literary equivalent of an English (pre-war) village with its small conflicts, potential marriages, people moving in, people moving out. It could be St. Mary Mead but is actually a London suburb back when those were practically still separate villages. It reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water, though with slightly less religious fervour. Some of Pym’s characterizations and scenes convinced me that J.K. Rowling has read Barbara Pym (one of Elizabeth Goudge’s books was Rowling’s favourite as a child so I see a link). And consider these book titles and tell me they don’t remind you of some of the ones Harry et. al. read: Wild Beasts and Their Ways and Five Years with the Congo Cannibals. A lot of the time the irony is so gentle that it nearly slipped by without my noticing: He suddenly smiled and I remembered my Lenten resolution to try to like him. It was getting a little easier but I felt that at any moment I might have a setback. …and there was less irony that I had expected considering that Barbara Pym is sometimes compared to Jane Austen, which I could only see in one or two places, such as in the following: In the train we read the school magazine, taking a secret pleasure in belittling those of the Old Girls who had done well and rejoicing over those who had failed to fulfil their early promise. A quietly enjoyable novel, if perhaps at times a bit too quiet for me, but a novel which, as I recently realized, has nonetheless managed to be put on the 1001 books-to-read-before-you-die list.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Plateresca

    My reading year has been going very nicely so far: it started with re-reading Pride and Prejudice, proceeded with Hotel du Lac and The Man in the Brown Suit. Then I've made an amazing discovery in I Capture the Castle, and now I've fallen in love with Barbara Pym. What unites all these books is the small scale, the underplayed irony, and the deep insights into human relationships. I loved every word of it, but here are a few more or less characteristic quotes: I began to see how people could ne My reading year has been going very nicely so far: it started with re-reading Pride and Prejudice, proceeded with Hotel du Lac and The Man in the Brown Suit. Then I've made an amazing discovery in I Capture the Castle, and now I've fallen in love with Barbara Pym. What unites all these books is the small scale, the underplayed irony, and the deep insights into human relationships. I loved every word of it, but here are a few more or less characteristic quotes: I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing. 'That looks very learned,' I said, in the feeble way that one does. 'I was a little dismayed, as we often are when our offers of help are taken at face value, and I set to work rather grimly...' I wish I could have stretched out the pleasure of reading 'Excellent Women' a bit more, and am so looking forward to reading other books by Pym :)

  27. 5 out of 5

    Katie Lumsden

    I really enjoyed this. It's like Jane Austen but set in the 1950s - very witty, but at times tinged with sadness. I really enjoyed this. It's like Jane Austen but set in the 1950s - very witty, but at times tinged with sadness.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    A most excellent book! Full of lots of humor and thoughtfulness--I agree that it's a bit Jane Austen-esque. However, I am not sure that the overall theme is quite so optimistic as Austen's works. I would be very interested to hear from others who have read this book to find out what they think. Did Mildred find a fulfilling life? What was Pym's view of "excellent women"--were they neglected victims or silent heroes? I'm looking forward to reading more of Pym's work. Highly recommended!!! A most excellent book! Full of lots of humor and thoughtfulness--I agree that it's a bit Jane Austen-esque. However, I am not sure that the overall theme is quite so optimistic as Austen's works. I would be very interested to hear from others who have read this book to find out what they think. Did Mildred find a fulfilling life? What was Pym's view of "excellent women"--were they neglected victims or silent heroes? I'm looking forward to reading more of Pym's work. Highly recommended!!!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Irena Pasvinter

    I enjoyed Barbara Pym's writing. I can see why she is called 20th century Jane Austen, and I quite agree with the comparison. I loved her mastery of subtle understatement, her ability to flash out the irony of everyday existence and of routine hypocrisy by hinting at it between the lines rather than by writing her message in capital letters -- the result is much more effective. I'm tired of modern bestsellers repeatedly drumming their messages of high importance into my ears and drilling them in I enjoyed Barbara Pym's writing. I can see why she is called 20th century Jane Austen, and I quite agree with the comparison. I loved her mastery of subtle understatement, her ability to flash out the irony of everyday existence and of routine hypocrisy by hinting at it between the lines rather than by writing her message in capital letters -- the result is much more effective. I'm tired of modern bestsellers repeatedly drumming their messages of high importance into my ears and drilling them into my head, à la modern Hollywood movie. I'm also not a fan of the modern tendency to interpret literary fiction as the kind of writing which should inevitably reward its readers with a headache and make its message, if it has any, forever obscured by the many layers of being clever and literary. So it's no wonder "Excellent Women" appealed to me. It is so refreshing when the writer trusts both her own talent to tell the story without spelling everything out (or unnecessary obfuscating whatever she has to tell) and the mental capacity of her readers to appreciate the irony and the subtlety. Although "Excellent Women" leaves a bitter-sweet aftertaste of sadness, the reading experience is deeply satisfactory. The setting is very British, the characters too, of course, and the times have changed, but just like it is with Jane Austen's novels, people are always people, and insights into their nature are never dull or outdated when told by a talented and masterful writer. I'll be sure to read more of Barbara Pym's novels.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Ooh --I like Barbara Pym! Her writing style is deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable. Mildred is an unattached woman of a certain age, and in the society of this time and place, the role of such excellent women seems to be to make themselves available for everyone else. In the course of her hum-drum life being upset by the appearance of some volatile newcomers to the neighborhood, Mildred begins to question society's expectations. “Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thou Ooh --I like Barbara Pym! Her writing style is deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable. Mildred is an unattached woman of a certain age, and in the society of this time and place, the role of such excellent women seems to be to make themselves available for everyone else. In the course of her hum-drum life being upset by the appearance of some volatile newcomers to the neighborhood, Mildred begins to question society's expectations. “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? “'Oh, but Byron was such a splendid romantic person,’ said Winifred, ‘and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ ‘Is it really?’ I asked, still determined that I would not be forced to admire Mrs. Gray. ‘Doesn’t one look for other qualities in people?’” I enjoyed spending time with Mildred. She’s witty and ironically self-deprecating. While hoping for something more, she accepts her role with a sort of eye to the absurdity of it all. She looks at the lives of people she is supposed to want to be like, and tells us what she sees. In the end, we realize she has more going for her than the rest of them put together.

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