I have just finished reading Excellent Women by English author Barbara Pym. I was particularly drawn to the title and bought it without knowing much about it other than it is considered a comedy and three years ago I had read and liked Quartet in Autumn, also by Barbara Pym. ‘Excellent women’ is a phrase that is used often in the book, referring to women who do basic or tedious tasks and volunteer for churches or other organizations.
It’s English comedy which for me was witty and clever and got better toward the end of the book, or maybe I was more aware of it by the end. It was not a laugh out loud type of comedy. The beginning was slow, but as I read, I grew to like the main character of Mildred more and more as her character evolved and got deeper into some uncontrollable circumstances and that changes her by the end of the book.
This is a character-driven book, not so much on plot. Mildred’s internal dialog questions the motives and reflects on the actions of other characters and realistically portrays how common it is to jump to a conclusion or impression about someone based on how they look or what they wear as opposed to who they are and what they do.
Mildred’s manners and constant devotion to church had me picturing her of a certain age, even though Barbara Pym makes it clear that she is only in her 30’s and yet on the edge of spinsterhood. Spinster was originally a woman who spun wool and later referred to an unmarried woman who is a perspective bride by the Church of England and then later as a woman beyond typical marrying age. It was used in a comedic ‘tongue in cheek’ way, and quite possibly at the time the book was published in early 1950s England, it might still have been commonly used. Evensong is mentioned numerous times and it is an evening prayer service in the Anglican Church.
Alexander McCall Smith who wrote the 2008 Introduction, says that Pym has become an adjective, and that a Barbara Pym moment is “…when one realizes that for those whom one is observing, one will never be an object of love.” To find out how this is apropos, you’ll have to read the book.
If this book is for you, go to your quiet place and start reading.