Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“To say that a moment is ‘very Barbara Pym’ is to say that it is a moment of self-observed, poignant acceptance of the modesty of one’s circumstances, of one’s peripheral position.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Excellent Women (page X)

I came across this book in 2018 via an article in the Guardian written in 2008 and decided to read it this year. This book took me quite a long time to finish. I am a slow-reader anyway, but this book took me very long indeed and in the beginning tried my patience a bit. However, I stuck with it and it turned out to be a very interesting and amusing read. It is one of the most poignant and nuanced books I’ve read in a long time.

Excellent Women starts off with new tenants moving into a vacant flat in the same house as 30-something, independent, unmarried and genteel, Mildred Lathbury. The Napiers are not your conventional 1950s married couple. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier is an ex-Navy officer. Soon after we are introduced to Julian Malory, vicar of the parish, and his sister Winifred Malory. We are also introduced to a colleague of Helena Napier, Everard Bone, who comes off as being rather arrogant.

A comedy-of-manners, Excellent Women is very witty. The book revolves primarily around Mildred, an excellent woman, the Napiers, the Malorys and Everard Bone.

“I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.”

Excellent Women, page 190

An excellent woman is someone who is sensible, has been rejected and is therefore unmarried. Alas, Mildred is labeled as an excellent woman by everyone around her for precisely, she suspects, these reasons. Mildred is a humble, down-to-earth person, who sometimes laments the fact that she is a spinster. Her spinsterhood, unfortunately, leaves her open to the condensation of the men, and sometimes women, around her.

I would recommend Excellent Women to anyone wanting to read more British women authors or wanting to amuse themselves by poking fun at the condescension of other people. The book is full of quotable witticisms, so definitely read it with a pencil nearby!