Thursday, 17 July 2014

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I adore the books of Barbara Pym; her witty and perceptive novels set in post-war Britain have a certain Jane Austenish charm.  Like many of her stories, Excellent Women concerns an unmarried woman, in this case Mildred Lathbury, and how a few small events overturn her well-regulated and predictable life.

The first event is the arrival of new neighbours. They are the glamorous Napiers – clever anthropologist Helena Napier and her dashing husband Rockingham. To Mildred they seem to have a far more exciting life than her own, which is dominated by involvement in church jumble sales and charity work with a society for impoverished gentlewomen.

But the Napiers’ marriage looks headed for disaster and each of them turns to Mildred to supply countless cups of tea and a sympathetic ear. Meanwhile Mildred’s close friendship with the vicar and his unmarried sister is overshadowed by the arrival of their dazzling new lodger, the attractive Allegra Gray, who is a vicar's widow, and therefore suitable in every way.

Pym peppers the book with hilarious minor characters: the outspoken Sister Blatt, the intellectual Everard Bone and his embarrassingly dotty mother, the well-meaning but otherworldly vicar. Mildred may be relegated to tea-making duties at every turn, but she provides a wonderfully wry and shrewd narrative voice.

Pym does a good job at sticking up for the ‘excellent women’ of her day, regarded as spinsters and stuck on the fringes of society, while showing up the vanities and foibles of those in more glorified circles. Excellent Women is a truly excellent read.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Excellent Women

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