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?
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!