Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


Excellent Women is Barbara Pym’s subtly witty and charming domestic novel centered around the wonderful and wise Mildred Lathbury. Mildred is an unmarried, thirty-something woman who leads a fairly predictable life in 1950’s London. She works part-time for an impoverished gentlewomen’s organization and spends the rest of her time serving at church and associating with her acquaintances from church, including Father Malory and his sister Winifred. When her dramatic new neighbors Rocky and Helena Napier befriend her she becomes their sounding board and adviser as their marriage starts to wilt. Mildred is attracted to the handsome and charismatic Rocky yet doesn’t really understand Helena, who is an anthropologist and has few domestic skills. Mildred has the single person’s natural curiosity about how marriage works and the Napiers are Mildred’s opportunity to observe the reality of a complicated marriage while trying to help them stay together.

Mildred also becomes entangled in the affairs of the Vicar and his new lodger Mrs. Gray and Everard Bone, a colleague of Helena’s. She seems to inadvertently take on the role of counselor to all the distressed people who surround her. Her ingrained good sense, lack of malice and true desire to assist people generate trust among her acquaintances. She does not openly seek this role or consequently enjoy it or feel comfortable in it, but she is one of those excellent women whom everyone relies on because she never lets them down and never expects much in return.

The great thing about Mildred is that she is so self-effacing and finds humor in her situation. She’s not perfect and she doesn’t always give the best advice, but she wants to be a good person and tries to quell her irritation and selfish tendencies. She’s also very aware of others’ imperfections and doesn’t judge them for their defects (except for maybe Helena’s inability to cook). I really absolutely love Mildred and now see her as an example and a role model (which I’m sure she would be baffled by) and am smitten with the little comforts she takes in life – her tea, her knitting, her small collection of cookbooks by the bedside.

Excellent Women is an excellent book! I am so glad that I finally read it and now I am committed to reading all of Pym’s novels. I love that Pym writes about spinsters who I can identify with. As an old-fashioned girl I’ve never felt like I’ve really recognized myself in any contemporary literary women, but I think there just might be a tiny piece of Mildred Lathbury in me and I’m happy about that.

What do other bloggers think?

Book Snob

Books & Chocolate

The Captive Reader

Ciao Domenica

Have you read any Rosamond Lehmann novels? Last year I read Invitation to the Waltz and really enjoyed it. So, I am thrilled that Florence from Miss Darcy’s Library is going to host a Rosamond Lehmann reading week sometime in the summer. I would love a chance to read more of her novels. Watch Florence’s blog for more information coming soon!

16 thoughts on “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. A writer I ve yet to read but I just not got a connection with her books but I should try her like spark I think she is maybe to female for me but slowly getting these writers down got a bainbridge to read the other day ,all the best stu


    1. I think Pym is more appealing to women readers, but her books are so funny and wry that men might enjoy reading just one. I think Excellent Women is a good place to start or maybe Jane & Prudence. I need to decide what Bainbridge I am going to read!


  2. I keep hearing about Pym but haven’t tried anything yet. I hope The Book People will have a set for cheap soon, so I can see what she is all about.

    Though, I suppose I am more on the modern woman, the undomesticated anthropologist’s side (though I can cook like a pro, Mildred could tell me NADA).


    1. Haha! I’m not a great cook, but I still think I can make better meals than Mildred did! The food choices in ’50’s Britain were pretty grim, I think.
      I hope you can get a set of Pym’s books – they are so charming and wonderful.


  3. I read this one way back in the 1970s when there was a Pym upsurge due to her being recommended by the writer Lord David Cecil, he said she was a modern day Jane Austen. I think she’s very good at writing husbands too – for someone who was never married. She must have observed people closely!


    1. Oh yes, her characters are so real! She gets their little eccentricities and quirks down cold. I could see how she can be likened to Austen, but to be honest I think I like her better than Austen!


  4. I am so happy to know that you enjoyed “Excellent Women.” It is one of my very favorite books. In fact I have read it many times and find it very comforting. Like you, I love Mildred and her insights into all of the people around her. When she chooses her church because of Father Mallory and Winifred’s true caring about her, I am always moved. And I laugh out loud at many of the comic scenes throughout the book. Just like Jane Austen, Pym could take a little world and fill it with comedy and all kinds of universal truths. I think there may be a resurgence in Pym’s popularity with all the bloggers who are currently writing about her!


    1. I hope there is a resurgence, Sunday! I think her writing is immensely enjoyable and funny and I just love her characters. I can see myself reading Excellent Women many times over – it has become one of my favorite books, too.


  5. Thanks for linking to my blog! I really liked this book and I don’t know why I still haven’t read any more of her works. I did pick one up off a library display the other day but I probably won’t get to it anytime soon. They’re so tempting because they’re fairly short.

    And thanks for mentioning the Rosamund Lehmann week. I received a copy of Dusty Answer for Christmas more than a year ago and haven’t touched it. That would be a good incentive.


    1. If you do read any more Pym, I’d recommend Jane & Prudence or Some Tame Gazelle – both very quick reads and very amusing. I enjoyed your thoughts on Excellent Women!


  6. I still haven’t read anything by Barbara Pym but this book is on my list for the Classics Club and I’m hoping to read it soon. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it – Mildred sounds like a great character!


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