Excellent Women
by Barbara Pym (1952)
Penguin Classics (2006)
231 pp

I‘ve been meaning to read Barbara Pym novel for years. Knowing her only by reputation, I felt like she’d be a favorite author . . . if only I read one of her books. When it came time to make my List of Betterment, I decided I needed to put her second novel, Excellent Women, on the list. When the time came to read another book from that list, Excellent Women grabbed me and said, It’s time. A stupid part of me tried to talk me out of it: “But, Trevor, you haven’t read Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle; how can you read her second book.” I ignored that part of me and went with my heart. I’m so glad I did. I loved  this book, and I loved meeting Pym’s protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, an excellent woman for sure.

I mean that literally: I think Mildred is excellent. In the book, however, Mildred and the other characters say “excellent woman” as a kind of euphemism referring to the unmarried women who, seeming to have nothing else to do with their time, do so much to help everyone else. So many people — especially couples embroiled in drama and the men of the church — rely on the stability of excellent women.

Mildred is one of these excellent woman, though it is clear she understands the dismissive irony of such a term. Hers is a delightful voice throughout the book, but there is so much sadness and longing. She cannot quell the part of her that is not satisfied with being an excellent woman, even though the married couples she entangles with do nothing to model the life she’d like to have. When a friend, commenting on how troubled their married acquaintances are, particularly the women, says that they’ve had a lucky escape, Mildred considers:

A lucky escape? I thought sadly. But would we have escaped, any of us, if we had been given the opportunity to do otherwise?

Mildred wants to love and to be loved. When the book begins we learn that she has had a prospect in the past — William, the brother of one of her good friends — but that never amounted to much. As the years have passed, that fact is a comfort and it is clear their “promise” was based mostly just the expectations of others. She didn’t want to marry William any more than he wanted to marry her. Still, it hurts. Her best prospect wasn’t ever really a prospect.

Mildred’s lonely but relatively quiet life is disrupted when a married couple — Rocky and Helena Napier — move in downstairs. Mildred, despite herself, takes a liking to Rocky. She does not entirely understand it. Not only is he a married man, but he’s not particularly ideal. At times she can see through the attractive mirage, as was the case the morning after she and Rocky shared a pleasant spring afternoon in each other’s company. Naturally, nothing untoward happened, but this small degree of intimacy warms Mildred. The lovely weather had inspired her to purchase some mimosas in perfect bloom, and she shares some with Rocky, who ends up accidentally keeping them. The next morning, everything had faded, even Rocky.

Rocky returned my half of the mimosa next morning, when I was hurrying to go out to my work. It had lost its first fluffiness and looked like the café table decoration that William disliked. The spring weather had also gone and Rocky himself appeared in a dressing-gown with his hair ruffled. I felt too embarrassed to look at him and put my hand out through the half open kitchen door and took the mimosa quickly, putting it in the vase with the twigs and catkins.

On the bus I began thinking that William had been right and I was annoyed to have to admit it. Mimosa did lose its first freshness too quickly to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people’s.

Mildred may think that she, like the mimosas, has lost her “first freshness too quickly to be worth buying.” However, there is another man in the mix: Everard Bone. He’s one of Helena Napier’s friends and colleagues. He’s single. He’s religious. He’s not particularly great, but he and Mildred share some connection. It doesn’t feel like love, but they can chat frankly, often about their friends, and they become close enough that Mildred allows some of her strength and criticism to come out in their conversations:

‘You could consider marrying an excellent woman?’ I asked in amazement. ‘But they are not for marrying.’

‘You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?’ he said, smiling.

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’

‘Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings then?’

‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’

Pym is a fantastic writer, as she shows how self-deprecating Mildred is. It’s funny and tragic, like when Mildred, finding herself listening to another friend’s drama, says she “wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.” But it does seem to be her lot in life to get mixed up in others’ drama. It’s not that she seeks to engage, though; she gets tangled up in it because they go to her, someone safe, someone who, to them, has no worries or concerns of her own and can, therefore, focus on theirs. She still finds herself apologizing for her part in it all:

‘I hope you didn’t think it interfering of me?’

‘Of course not. I know how you love contriving things,’ he smiled. ‘Births, deaths, marriages and all the rest of it.’

Perhaps I did love it as I always seemed to get involved in them, I thought with resignation; perhaps I really enjoyed other people’s lives more than my own.

It’s a great story, and I’m so excited to keep reading Pym’s work. I understand Mildred comes up in a few later novels, and I’m dying to know how.

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