0412 | Excellent Women | Barbara Pym


Never heard of Barbara Pym, let alone read anything by her. But she turned out to be a sardonically witty writer with a lot to say about life, particularly relationships and British culture in the early 1950s. This was a particularly interesting time to understand if you want to understand 20th century Britain at all, in fact, because it was a tipping point between the stiff upper lip, make do austerity of the war years and the frivolous, fashionable idolatry that the 1960s spawned. You can only really understand anything about post 1950 Britain unless you understand 1950 Britain first.

And so I very much appreciated Pym’s pastiche of life as a single women in post-war urban Britain. The characters were strong, the setting was beautifully crafted and the humour was as dry as desert sand in a Dyson hand dryer.

Miss Mildred Lathbury is single and, lest she forget, is constantly reminded of that fact by the do-goody company she keeps. She and her companions are the eponymous excellent women who make middle class society run smoothly. You know the ones: They organise jumble sales and knit socks for starving Africans. In between, somehow, they manage to have their own life although Miss Lathbury feels almost guilty for doing so at times.

She’s a complex character who I think deserves a second reading. While you develop an understanding that her ignorance is hardly her own fault, what you initially take for naivety is in fact her questioning the very things that should be questioned about the value system she has inherited. As the novel progresses, you see her asking these questions more and more. At first, I thought her rather farcical. But when I’d finished, I realised that, with few exceptions, it was every other character that was farcical and they were only rendered so by being contrasted with her genuine integrity.

There is a bit of a storyline, but the strength of the novel is definitely in Pym’s subtle mockery of British culture. Take the quote about tea below as an example. It isn’t purely sarcasm, but obviously the product of long reflection. It’s no wonder that this is one of her best-loved novels and an indication that there’s more of her I would undoubtedly enjoy. Another winner from the 1001 list!


“Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there’s something happening!”


We now followed them into a room adjoining the library where a number of people were already sitting. I noticed that the front rows were basket chairs and that one or two elderly men and women had settled themselves comfortably. One old man wore a purple muffler wound round his neck; an old woman took a piece of multicoloured knitting from a raffia bag and began to work on it.

Rocky and I took our seats somewhere in the middle of the room on the harder chairs. The younger people sat here, girls with flowing hair and scarlet nails and youths with hair almost as flowing and corduroy trousers. I noticed one or two Americans, serious-looking young men with rimless glasses and open notebooks, and a group of Africans, talking in a strange language. There was a buzz of unintelligible conversation all around us.


Perhaps there an be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot… Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, “Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury…” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.


This might give the game away so click if you want to show


0412 | Excellent Women | Pym | 73% | Very Good

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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