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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Posted by Sherry on 4/26/2007 in Adult Fiction, General |

What a find! I’ve never read anything by Barbara Pym before, but I found her book, Excellent Women, to be reminiscent of Jane Austen (drolly observant), Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (insightful in regard to the ordinary), and even Jane Eyre, without the drama, but with the wry self-analysis.

Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of the story, does say near the beginning of the book: “I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.” Miss Lathbury then proceeds to tell her story in first person and depict herself as a rather plain female who is always cast in the role of the excellent woman who offers sympathy and a cup of tea at crucial moments.

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. 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 struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

Shades of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”

More observations from Mildred Lathbury, excellent woman:

“Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?”

“I remembered my Lenten resolution to try to like him. It was getting a little easier, but I felt that at any moment I might have a setback.”

“I dare say a clever person with a fantastic turn of mind could transform even a laundry list into a poem.”

“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 there is no hope for her.”

If you’ve read and enjoyed other books by Ms. Pym, what would you suggest next?

4 Comments

  • I was also thrilled when I discovered Pym’s books. The only other one I’ve read so far is Quartet In Autumn. That and Excellent Women are the two I’ve come across the most at booksales.

    She came highly recommended in a couple of “books about books”.

  • Laura D. says:

    I think I’ve read and reread all her books – I have a lot of them because they are perennial favorites – and I like Crampton Hodnet best for a laugh-out-loud “Lucky Jim” type portrayal of academia. Of all her books, the only one I dislike is The Sweet Dove Died. Jane and Prudence is good, and so is A Few Green Leaves. Don’t pass up her autobiography from her letters and diaries, either.

    If you come across any book by her, it’s probably worth reading.

  • John says:

    I thought you might be interested in the New Notions 5 reading challenge

  • Mary Beth says:

    Oh… how I love Barbara Pym. So witty of you to think of Prufrock in connection with Mildred. LOL. I can definitely see the resemblance.
    One of my favorite Pym novels is A Glass of Blessings (I even swiped the title for my blog from it…). Thought I would mention it since no one else has. It rather more obscure that some of her others.
    I second the recommendation of her autobiography. It’s just as witty as the novels. I also recommend for Pym fans the Barbara Pym Cookbook. I finally got a copy for Christmas. It’s filled with all kinds of “proper” english recipes, along with related food quotes from the novels.

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