Excellent Women

Excellent Women


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“The finest introduction to Barbara Pym” (The New York Times): a hilarious comedy of manners by the shrewdly observant British novelist often compared to Jane Austen

One of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies, Excellent Women has at its center Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors—anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door—the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143104872
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/26/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 184,635
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.74(h) x 0.55(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Barbara Pym (1913–1980) was a British novelist best known for her series of satirical novels on English middle-class society. A graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, Pym published the first of her nine novels, Some Tame Gazelle, in 1950, followed by five more books. Despite this early success and continuing popularity, Pym went unpublished from 1963 to 1977. Her work was rediscovered after a famous article in the Times Literary Supplement in which two prominent names, Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, nominated Pym as the most underrated writer of the century. Her comeback novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize.

A. N. Wilson (introducer) was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby School and New College, Oxford. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has held a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism, winning prizes for much of his work and contributing to the London Even Standard, Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, Spectator, Observer, and Daily Mail, among others. He lives in London.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

[One of] the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years. (Lord David Cecil)

A startling reminder that solitude may be chosen and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience. (John Updike, The New Yorker)

Reading Barbara Pym is . . . a wonderful experience, full of unduplicable perceptions, sensations, and soul-stirrings. (Newsweek)

Reading Group Guide

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a novel about a woman named Mildred Lathbury who is living in London in the 1950s. A self-proclaimed spinster, virtuous almost to a fault, intelligent, and entirely without family, Mildred is alone and content to be so. As the story begins, she is leading a quiet life of churchgoing and part-time charity work, with the Malorys—Julian, a pastor and single man, and his frazzled, sweet sister, Winifred—as her dearest friends.

However, as Mildred herself notes, “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” (p. 5). And so upon her too-comfortable existence enter a host of unsettling and decidedly unvirtuous characters: the Napiers—Helena and Rockingham—a glamorous and unconventional couple who become Mildred’s housemates; Allegra Gray, the calculating widow who destabilizes Mildred’s relationship with the Malorys; and Everard Bone, the aloof anthropologist who befriends Mildred against all of her expectations.

The Napiers’ marriage is on the rocks, due to Helena’s fierce dedication to her anthropological fieldwork and to dashing Rockingham’s effortless romancing of every woman he encounters. As their go-between and confidant, Mildred suddenly finds herself swept into their milieu of romantic drama and self-important science. Two love triangles develop: between the Napiers and Everard Bone, and between Allegra Gray, Julian Malory, and, to her surprise, Mildred herself. Even as she expresses her intent to preserve her independence, a number of potential suitors present themselves. The more Mildred tries to extricate herself, the more involved she becomes, as each of her friends depends on her to sort out the unflattering messes they make for themselves.

Yet behind her plain and patient facade, capable Mildred turns out to be a more ruthless social observer than even the anthropologists whose job it is to “study man.” Excellent Women is a romantic comedy that makes the decidedly unromantic suggestion that its narrator might be happiest alone. Mildred’s wit and independence subvert the stereotype that “excellent women” are dull. Set against the backdrop of postwar London, a city sorting through the disruptions of wartime bombing, the beginnings of feminism, and the end of colonialism, the novel offers effortless social critique that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.



English novelist Barbara Pym was born in 1913 in Shropshire. She was educated at Oxford and for many years worked at the African Institute in London. She enjoyed initial success in her writing career but then for over a decade was unable to find a publisher for her novels. After being called “the most underrated writer of the century” by Philip Larkin, there was a resurgence of critical and popular interest in her work in the final years of her life. She published six novels between 1950 and 1961, including Excellent Women in 1952, and four additional works after 1977. Among these later works is Quartet in Autumn, which was nominated for the Booker Prize. Pym died in 1980 at her home in Oxfordshire.


  • Try to define the “excellent women” of the novel’s title. What are their habits and character traits? How do others view them, and what is their role in society? Consider whether Mildred herself views herself as an excellent woman, both at the beginning and the end of the novel.
  • As a single woman without family, Mildred is perceived to be always available to others. Nearly every character—from the Napiers to the Malorys to Everard Bone—comes to Mildred for help and advice. What aspects of Mildred’s personality make her seem dependable, as someone to rely on for help? Do you think she actually helps those who come to her? How does she feel about the role that is thrust upon her?
  • Excellent Women is firmly rooted in a specific place and time. What can you learn about England in the 1950s from this novel? Think about the war in the then-recent past—the specter of the bombed-out church that Mildred and Everard attend, for example—and the changing position of women. How would you describe the city and the lives of Londoners? Is London a place of opportunity or a metropolis haunted by history? What in particular does it offer to Mildred that another place might not?
  • Women and their relationship to work is a theme throughout the novel. Helena Napier, for example, struggles to balance her passion for fieldwork with her marital duties, while Mildred herself tries to maintain meaningful part-time work alongside solitude. How do their lives compare to the lifestyles of single women in their thirties today? Which of their problems continue to vex contemporary working women?
  • The jumble sales at All Souls are a preoccupation for many of the women who fit Mildred’s description in the book. Who buys clothing and knickknacks at such events, and what do the volunteer organizers enjoy or despise about participating in the sales? What might these bazaars of used things symbolize, consciously or unconsciously, for these characters or for Barbara Pym?
  • Though Mildred professes that she is satisfied with her life, she is also tempted by the options she sees other women taking. Think of the women she envies and the women she pities. What possible futures do you think are available to her in her era? In ours? Return to places in the novel in which she contemplates her fate. What does she fear she might become?
  • Consider the type of work that Mildred does, the church activities as well as her job with the impoverished gentlewomen’s group. Do these still exist as common occupations in the place that you come from? Who is involved in them? Are there new volunteer or religious or NGO positions that have replaced the former charity and part-time work of “excellent women”?
  • Helena and Everard are anthropologists—students of human societies. How perceptive are they about their own lives and society? Compare their skills to Mildred’s own social acuity. What does Pym suggest about the gulf between science and lived reality? Do you think her depiction of anthropology is merely satirical, or does she suggest that there might be something to gain from such study? What does Mildred think?
  • Many people seem to pity Mildred for being unmarried, and over the course of the novel more than one suitor presents himself to her. What does Mildred think of the possibility of marriage? Think over various scenes in the novel when she considers married life, its preoccupations and obligations. What in her life would change if she were no longer single? Does Mildred want to be married, or are there things she values more?
  • Mildred lives alone, as do many of the minor characters in the novel, including Dora, William, and Everard Bone. What do these characters gain by living alone, and what do they lose? Who is happy with his or her situation, and who seeks to change it? What do you think the author’s attitude is toward these characters? What is yours?
  • At the end of the novel, Pym hints at changes in Mildred’s life while being ambiguous about what exactly those changes might be. What do you predict for her? What do you think would make her happiest or most fulfilled? What would be the traditional happy ending?
  • Why does Mildred insist that she is nothing like the gothic heroine Jane Eyre? What does this suggest about her modesty or her self-regard? Do you think she might be termed a heroine, even if an untraditional one? What about her is heroic? What about her story is an adventure, a quest, or a journey?

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Excellent Women 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was expecting a cloyingly superficial nothing much of a read...but it turns out I love the people, was drawn into the story and felt sorry it was over so soon!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A sweet little novel with no sex or bad words. ~*~LEB~*~
ReaderinColorado More than 1 year ago
This book and all of Barbara Pym's books are great small Brit town reads. If you enjoy the British programs on PBS you will enjoy her books. Even if there is no essential plot you just fall in with her characters and really care what they have to say and what they do.
Fanny_B More than 1 year ago
This is my second time reading Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. I confess, when I checked the book out, I hadn't remembered that I had read it--that is, until I opened it up and ran into my old acquaintance Mildred. I was tempted to put it down again--just because I had wanted a new book--but I found I couldn't. Pym draws you in, with her funny characters, and those scenes of awkward humanity. Once I finished, I immediately went to the library and checked out The Sweet Dove Died, which I loved even more. Pym is fast becoming one of my favorite writers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was most enjoyable. I had never heard of this author or her books. I wish I would have found her sooner. It is so hard to describe this book. It was just a fun time to read it. I will read the rest of her books. Too bad there aren't that many books she wrote before she died.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a sweet, funny book with wonderful characters that really come to life. Pym does a wonderful job of exploring the inner lives of her characters and describing the small domestic scenes which make up so much of life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very dry, the story really never goes anywhere. I didn’t appreciate the focus on different types of churches and church activities, it didn’t add to the story at all. Decent characters but it ends without anything really happening.
meyben on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set in England in 1950's a spinster lady becomes interested in improving herself. Hoping someday she might meet a man to make a life with.
DameMuriel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barbara Pym books make me happy. I'm gonna read one right now.
cbl_tn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman -- respectable, efficient, practical, church-going, and, of course, resignedly single. She is the sort of person that others take for granted. She seems to be the person that people turn to when they need help -- someone to tend to the details of moving house, or to pour out one's feelings to in the midst of a personal crisis. No one ever seems to think of doing anything for her. Most of the time Mildred bears it all with grace and good humor, although she occasionally succumbs to self-pity.The book provides a glimpse at an interesting period in English history, the years shortly after World War II when the country was recovering from the effects of the war, many goods were still scarce and rationing was still in force. The middle class still clung to traditional social roles and customs, although it was becoming apparent that society was on the brink of change. While her circumstances apparently had not changed at the end of the novel, there are inklings that Mildred's outlook on life had begun to alter by the book's end.This book couldn't have been written even ten or fifteen years later. In some ways Mildred was trapped by the social expectations and obligations of the era, but the upheavals of the 1960s erased many of the former social conventions. On the surface this is a rather light novel, but I think it is one that will require repeated readings to appreciate all of its undercurrents.
LoMa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very good "lady's novel".
apartmentcarpet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barbara Pym writes very precise comedies of manner, in the style of Jane Austen. She is generally enjoyed by Austen fans, but I just can't get interested. Her humor is a little too dry, and the stories a little too bare.
pdebolt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As always, Barbara Pym does an incomparable job of portraying English "gentlewomen." The reader would know Mildred upon seeing her, as is true of the other characters in this book. So much of Mildred's life is dictated by what is "proper" and acceptable, while realizing that she is sometimes less than satisfied with her life as it is. There is a quality of dryness in Pym's writing that is enjoyable and made me want to continue reading this book.
jmaloney17 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I hate being expected to live a certain way, because that is the way it is done. So, I was sympathetic to Mildred's growing frustration with the expectations of her friends and society. The book was nice. I know Mildred would hate that I called it "nice," but that is what it was. There is no great revelation. It was a nice observation of society.
MissWoodhouse1816 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Personally, this book personifies everything I love about LibraryThing. I can't remember if I found this book on the auto-generated suggestions, or the member suggestions; all I know is that I needed something good to read on break from university, and because of LibraryThing I read "Excellent Women."Barbara Pym is wonderful writer, opening a little corner of war-effort England to the reader. More than that, she weaves a delightfully complicated story of love, romance, and rejection. As I read through the book, I felt certain that it would end in a certain way. I told myself that if it did indeed end how I thought, I'd lose all hope in romantic fiction. However, the ending was not what I expected at all, so my hope lives on!Excellent Women is now one of my favourite books, and I can't wait to read more by Barbara Pym.
dawnlovesbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
a modern jane austen. funny and charming!
oapostrophe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was like watching a Masterpiece Theater! I felt as if I was back in my childhood with my grandmother and her church ladies and jumble sales and properness. Such a fun read, filled with astute observations of life and relationships. Such fun!
drmarymccormack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have read so many good reviews about Barbara Pym's books by people I respect that I had very high expectations. This was just an okay book. I didn't really like even the main protagonist. I will read another of Pym's books and see if I'm just a dullard.
MariaAlhambra on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful novel, a bittersweet portrayal of loneliness and conformity. The first person narration is a great achievement, a mixture of cynicism, self-deceit and polite desperation. As usual with Pym, there are first-rate portraits of parish life, in equal measure comforting and life-sapping (see the excellent scene of the Christmas bazaar discussion). She also has a great eye for everyday minutiae and its importance: she's great at describing the inadequate consolations of tea, gossip, routine, meddling and food.Oh, and for fans of "Some Tame Gazelle"'s Archdeacon Hoccleve, he makes a guest appearance here with one of his doomy, literary sermons.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mildred Lathbury is a single, 30-something daughter of a clergyman living in London during the 1950s. She considers herself "capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life -- birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather ..." Mildred works part-time caring for "aged gentlewomen," and spends the rest of her day doing good works with similar "excellent women" like herselves, associated with her local church. She is quietly proud of her ability to live independently, and there is a poignancy in her single lifestyle. In Mildred's point of view, excellent women are "are not for marrying": "it was not excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up." The novel's plot revolves around several characters in Mildred's life including Helena and Rocky Napier, a couple who live in the flat below Mildred; Everard Bone, an anthropologist; Julian Malory, the local vicar; and Allegra Gray, a woman who moves to the area and wins Julian's heart. Through these characters Barbara Pym portrays English suburban life, with a hearty dose of irony. Her clever turns of phrase poke fun at English norms and customs, and at the everyday doings of people, everywhere: - After politely offering to help with a bit of sewing: "I was a little dismayed, as we often are when our offers of help are taken at their face value, and I set to work rather grimly, especially as Mrs. Gray herself was not doing anything at all." - On being asked to do someting intolerable, Mildred reacts: "The room suddenly seemed very hot and I saw Mrs. Gray's face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot colour"- Describing the arrival of furniture movers: "There were three of them, two cheerful and strong-looking, and the third, paerhaps as befitted his position as foreman, wizened and melancholy and apparently incapable of carrying anything at all." Reading Excellent Women was an enjoyable immersion in English culture. I know I will be visiting Pym's world again and again.
aemurray on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow, terrific book! Highly recommend, lots of stuff swirling around our heroine. Never engulfs her, the intrepid English woman.
monkeyandcrow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The 'Excellent Women' in question are the quiet, unmarried, obliging sorts who are supposed to have no "real" lives of their own - making them much put-upon by those who consider their own thoughtless entanglements to be of the upmost importance. Pym gives a very touching portrait of a single woman in the thick of that "certain age", who has not yet given up hope of romance but who dares not assume she will be pursued (being Excellent meaning, of course, that she can pursue no one herself!). This is a poignant and well-drawn novel, featuring several of Pym's recurring anthropological characters. For my money, one of her best novels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very different from what I usually read, but did hold interest enough to make it to the end. I almost always keep reading , hoping it will get better. English terms were confusing, too.
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