Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

British author Barbara Pym (1913 – 1980) was often compared to Jane Austen for her comedies of manner; she was called Britain’s “new Jane Austen.Excellent Women was her second novel, published in England in 1952.

Barbara Pym’s novels explore manners and morals in village life with subtle, understated wit and keen insight into human nature that transcends their local flavor. The nine novels published in her lifetime are considered the Pym canon; there were four others published posthumously.

Many Pym devotees cite Excellent Women as their entry-point to her novels, and for legions of fans, it remains their favorite. Shirley Hazzard wrote of Barbara Pym:

“She is herself the poet of the lonely, the virtuous, the ironic; of the unostentatiously intelligent and witty; of the angelically self-effacing, with their diabolically clear gaze. Nothing escapes such persons; and they escape nothing.”

Oddly, after the book’s successful initial British publication, and its subsequent status as a true Pym classic, it was turned down by eighteen American and European publishers. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978, at which time it was greeted with the enthusiasm it deserves. The book has gone through many editions since and is still in print.

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Barbara Pym with her cat

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A 1978 Review of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

From the original review by Joyce W. Milkie in The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, SC): “Pym’s Characters Are Credible.”

This is Georgian light fiction set in a comparatively modern setting. Understated and veddy, veddy British, Mildred Lathbury is almost unbelievable in some ways, as a member of the 20th Century gang. In others, she is credible and completely delightful.

Barbara Pym, most assuredly an English writer, wrote this book some time ago and it has just been reissued. For those who enjoy the light touch, the mannered tale, this is a gem of the first water, a delightful look at a way of life now almost gone. If you adore Jane Austen, you’ll delight in Pym’s books.

Mildred Lathbury, who narrates the story, is a spinster (and one gets the idea she doesn’t really like her unmarried state) who seems to have a number of eligible men around but none of them center on her. She is the daughter of a clergyman and is a “high church.”

She has ample means so she can devote her time to involvement in other people’s lives and in helping her “distressed gentlewomen.” She is one of those “excellent women” who help out other people but tend to be resignedly borne with by even those they help.

Mildred, who has more of a sense of humor and is more attractive than most of these “excellent women” tend to be, doesn’t really want to be numbered among these tedious people. She really would like to be married, romantically and ideally, but she just doesn’t know how to go about it.

She has a few heart flutters when a handsome ex-Navy officer and his wife move in downstairs. His wife, she thinks, doesn’t appreciate him. Then there is Julian, the clergyman at her church, who has his sister to care for him but succumbs to the lure of a glamorous widow and sorrows because he thinks Mildred is secretly in love with him. (She isn’t.)

There are other lives touching Mildred’s and she helps where she can and tries to keep hands off when she believes that’s the best thing.

One gets involved with Mildred, a charming and retiring character, and one hopes, sincerely, she may find that romantic attachment she so obviously craves but won’t bestir herself to promote.

Pym writes with cool clarity and with gentle, underplayed humor. Her people are credible and one does get involved with them, but Mildred is the one the reader cares the most about.

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Excellent women by Barbara Pym
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Quotes from Excellent Women

“I realized that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced.”

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“My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”

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“Once you get into the habit of falling in love you will find that it happens quite often and means less and less.”

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“There are some things too dreadful to be revealed, and it is even more dreadful how, in spite of our better instincts, we long to know about them.”

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“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.”

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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

See more Quotes from Excellent Women and Other Novels by Barbara Pym
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