Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a novel about a woman named Mildred Lathbury who is living in London in the 1950s. A self-proclaimed spinster, virtuous almost to a fault, intelligent, and entirely without family, Mildred is alone and content to be so. As the story begins, she is leading a quiet life of churchgoing and part-time charity work, with the Malorys—Julian, a pastor and single man, and his frazzled, sweet sister, Winifred—as her dearest friends.
However, as Mildred herself notes, “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” (p. 5). And so upon her too-comfortable existence enter a host of unsettling and decidedly unvirtuous characters: the Napiers—Helena and Rockingham—a glamorous and unconventional couple who become Mildred’s housemates; Allegra Gray, the calculating widow who destabilizes Mildred’s relationship with the Malorys; and Everard Bone, the aloof anthropologist who befriends Mildred against all of her expectations.
The Napiers’ marriage is the rocks, due to Helena’s fierce dedication to her anthropological fieldwork and to dashing Rockingham’s effortless romancing of every woman he encounters. As their go-between and confidant, Mildred suddenly finds herself swept into their milieu of romantic drama and self-important science. Two love triangles develop: between the Napiers and Everard Bone, and between Allegra Gray, Julian Malory, and, to her surprise, Mildred herself. Even as she expresses her intent to preserve her independence, a number of potential suitors present themselves. The more Mildred tries to extricate herself, the more involved she becomes, as each of her friends depends on her to sort out the unflattering messes they make for themselves.
Yet behind her plain and patient facade, capable Mildred turns out to be a more ruthless social observer than even the anthropologists whose job it is to “study man.” Excellent Women is a romantic comedy that makes the decidedly unromantic suggestion that its narrator might be happiest alone. Mildred’s wit and independence subvert the stereotype that “excellent women” are dull. Set against the backdrop of postwar London, a city sorting through the disruptions of wartime bombing, the beginnings of feminism, and the end of colonialism, the novel offers effortless social critique that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
About the Author
Born Barbara Mary Crampton Pym at Oswestry in 1913, the daughter of a solicitor, Frederic Crampton Pym, she was educated at Liverpool College, Huyton, and read English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. There she developed her passion for literature and church ritual and also formed her habit of cherishing ‘unrequited attachments to unresponsive men’ (C. A. R. Hills, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ), notably for one Henry Harvey who appears as the archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve, in her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle. Disappointment in love is the inspiration for her thirteen novels, humorous and gentle satires on English parish and suburban life.
She had a long struggle to get the first novel into print, eventually succeeding in 1950, and up to 1961 six were published, including Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. Then she received a crushing blow when, in the changed climate of the nineteen sixties and seventies, publishers rejected An Unsuitable Attachment as unfashionable and she remained in the wilderness until 1977. In that year both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin named her in the TLS as the most underrated writer of the century and reawakened the publishers’ interest. Her books began to be published again, beginning with Quartet in Autumn and she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Four manuscripts which had been gathering dust for years were published posthumously, including Crampton Hodnet, set in North Oxford.
During the war years she served in the WRNS and was posted to Naples. In 1946 she began research and editorial work at the International African Institute and the rest of her professional life was spent there. She lived with her sister Hilary Walton in various parts of London and then in 1972 they settled in Finstock at Barn Cottage. There Barbara remained, writing and participating in village life, until her death from cancer in 1980. Her final days were spent in the Oxford hospice, Michael Sobell House. She is buried in Finstock Churchyard.