“Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym

To be honest, this book barely made it  on my to-read-shelf before I snatched it up after last weekend’s Persephone Book event. I can’t remember where I came to find this title but it must have been one of those weird clicks through the net one won’t ever be able to reconstruct. The beautiful cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition definitely served as an eye-catcher!Alexander McCall Smith wrote the introduction to ‘Excellent Women’ and in my opinion his writing style is a bit reminiscent of  Barbara Pym.

Barbary Pym (1913-1980)  is known to write about ordinary people, mostly middle-class women, and their thoughts and feelings. ‘Excellent Women’ is set it the post-war London of the 1950s but although the war hasn’t been over it is only mentioned ‘in the margins’, e.g. the still half-destroyed church where the lunch-time service the protagonist attends is held next to piles of rubble. Pym mostly focuses on people’s thoughts and inner developement and the use of the first-person-narrator in ‘Excellent Women’ assures that the reader is privy to Mildred’s most private thoughts and feelings and has a front-row seat to see how the disruption of her structured life opens new possibilities and a change of behaviour.

From the blurb:

“Mildred Lathbury is one of those excellent women who are often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoilt by bad weather’.”

I really enjoyed reading ‘Excellent Women’ although I found myself getting a bit annoyed with Mildred’s constant worrying about other people’s needs and going out of her way to manage their messes. But she can’t help it!

“I suppose 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, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter the one might really say that there is no hope for her” (p.1)

With the arrival of her new neighbours and other new acquaintances Mildred sometimes breaks out of her usual path and seems frustrated with the way people behave around her and her standard reactions to this.

‘Excellent Women’ describes the prominent roles a middle-class women in 1950s England (and this could be transferred to, say, 1950s Germany as well!) could assume: dutiful, married women leading a happy and fulfilled life or unmarried women, leading a life on the sidelines, observing but not really participating.

While Mildred is certainly an independent, capable woman, her surroundings try to find her a “suitable” husband and Mildred herself can’t help thinking about being married.

This is not a novel with happy marriages all around and certainly not a romance but rather a poignant social study of woman’s lives and roles. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible good book and a pleasure to read! I may have ordered a bunch of Barbara Pym’s other novels 😉