I read Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym, many years ago. It was the first book I read by her and I remember liking it very much. Since then, I have read many of her other books, but it had been so long since I read this one that I decided to include it on my list of 50 books to read in 5 years for The Classics Club. Last month, it came up as my “Classics Club Spin” book for May. I’m glad I reread it, and I’m happy to spend time reading anything written by Barbara Pym.
“Excellent Women” is a term referring to unmarried women who are considered spinsters. In this story, which takes place in the 1950s, the main character, Mildred Lathbury, is just over 30, and well established in the community as a spinster. As the daughter of a clergyman, she devotes much of her time to helping at her church, and just helping people in general. She is capable and independent, and quite satisfied with her life as a single person. But new neighbors, a married couple, complicate her predictable daily existence, and she gets drawn in to the drama of their lives. She is good friends with the pastor of her church and his sister, (who has always taken good care of him), but when he gets engaged to the widow of another clergyman, that further complicates Mildred’s ordered life.
Throughout this story, I felt that Mildred was the only “adult in the room.” Everyone else was needy in one way or another, or selfish and unable to really care about others. I felt sorry for Mildred because of the demands placed on her, and when others took advantage of her I wanted her to stand up to them and just say “No.” It took her quite awhile to be able to do that, but she weathers all the demands and drama, and in the end appreciates her single life, her solitude, and her independence even more than before.
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 then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
There is always a lot of subtle humor in Barbara Pym’s novels, which is very entertaining. I liked the main character, Mildred Lathbury, more and more as the book progressed and appreciated her intelligence and her insightfulness into the humans around her. This was a novel well worth re-reading.
Excellent Women was one of my choices for my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.