29 May 2018

Is She an Excellent Woman?

Excellent Women
Barbara Pym
E. P. Dutton, 1978 (originally published 1952)
256 pages

This is Barbara Pym's best known novel, a lightly satiric, wry look at mid-twentieth century London, soon after World War II's end. Mildred is a very kind, unassuming spinster in her mid-thirties, living alone in London. This is her story, told from her point of view, almost as if written in her diary. Although she has no family left and never married, she says she enjoys her solitude and is happy with a part-time job with an impoverished gentlewomen’s group and her work in the church. In the book, women who do that sort volunteer work are condescendingly referred to as "excellent women" by other characters.


Mildred is quite perceptive about the people she finds around her: the pastor and his spinster sister, the members of her church, her new neighbors, her old school friend. She wonders how a group of anthropologists she meets can be so insightful about the primitive tribes they study and yet so obtuse about their own lives. She marvels that the unmarried pastor can be so smitten with an uncharitable, unacceptable woman. She examines her own thoughts and feelings closely, as well, with a self-deprecating humor.

However as a single woman without family ties, everyone she knows presumes she will help them, expecting her to automatically be there for their needs. And she invariably is, although she does allow herself a grumble here and there about it. Thus she finds herself doing things she doesn't really want to do at all.

It's a quiet book, no dramatic disasters befall Mildred, although the lives of her friends do seem to constantly be in turmoil and in need of her assistance. Overall I enjoyed this look at post-war London and it was very well-written. Mildred's observations are spot on. But I found her passivity in the face of others' demands upon her very sad. This counts as the 20th century classic books for the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge.

Further Reading

Reader's Guide by Penguin/Random House

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