Hi everyone! Today I’ll be reviewing Barbara Pym’s second novel Excellent Women, which I won a copy of from a Virago Press competition. In my household I famously never win anything ever so woohoo! Set in 1950s London, our narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a thirty year old, unmarried woman who splits her time between her part-time job and helping out at the local church. However, she quickly becomes entangled in the lives of her glamourous new neighbours the Napiers. Anthropologist Helena, who appears to be the exact opposite of Mildred, and Navy officer Rockingham (the best name in fiction that I’ve read recently), whom Mildred develops a soft spot for, seem to be going through a turbulent patch in their marriage. To complicate her life even further, Helena’s colleague Everard Bone and Mildred’s friend and vicar Julian Mallory also pop up with their own problems.
The decision to tell the story from Mildred’s perspective was brilliant. One of the characters says she is an ‘observer of life’ which is sort of true. Nothing happens to her but to people around her, and she is often left to deal with other people’s actions. Yet she is not a mere shrinking violet, a device to simply tell the narrative, despite her appearance to others (and intially the audience). Mildred has an incredible wit, and her remarks about the often bizarre situations she finds herself in are quite funny. Not necessarily in a laugh out loud way but I found myself smiling at her observations. Pym also instills in her a kind of sadness, a longing for something more. She appears to have suppressed those feelings, and while they are only alluded to, the reader can certainly glean them from the text and have sympathy for Mildred. Perhaps appearing a very one-note person at first, I found Mildred to be a very complex, interesting character.
The supporting characters too were well-written. Mildred’s fellow churchgoers all had a distinctive voice which I admired and the reader was given little snippets into their own thoughts and feelings. Some aspects of their depiction I found quite stereotypical, such as the gossipy nature whenever anything of interest happened, yet I didn’t mind this as it led to some funny dialogue. The three main men in Mildred’s life – Rockingham, Everard and Julian – were also very different from one another. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, allowing the audience to see why Mildred did care for them and also where one seemed a better choice compared to the others. It makes the idea of deciding who would be the best man for Mildred impossible, and I think it is only until the latter half of the novel do you start to get an idea of who it may be. I found this quite refreshing as I find that with romance in stories it is glaringly obvious from the beginning. To not really know was enjoyable and kept me guessing.
Yet the strength of Excellent Women lies within Pym’s writing and observations. The novel is set in post-war London but it remains very much in the background. Instead Pym focuses on the much smaller events that make up a person’s life. Mildred’s sense of what is proper in the most insignificant moments is quite endearing, as we have all worried ourselves about something that is ultimately quite trivial in the grander scheme of things. Pym’s comments about society and the things we do because of societal expectations I found really relatable and could sometimes recognise myself in them, despite the novel being written over 60 years ago. Her understanding of human foibles and a wonderful ability to write them in a truthful and witty manner makes the novel truly great.
Excellent Women is, well, excellent. The characterisation, particularly of Mildred, was well-done and gave you a sense of this community and its inhabitants. Despite finding Mildred’s views quite old-fashioned at times, especially in regards to marriage, she was a delightful, funny and sympathetic character. I was sad when I finished the book because I wouldn’t be spending more time with her. The secondary characters as well were given enough depth that they didn’t feel caricaturish. Yet the novel’s main selling point has to be Pym’s writing. Her observations of the small details of life are often witty and charming. I feel slightly ashamed that I have never read more of Pym’s work but hopefully I can correct this in 2018.
Excellent Women is published by Virago Press and more information can be found here.