Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Excellent Women was first published in 1952, Barbara Pym’s second published novel. In his introduction to the book Alexander McCall Smith describes it asone of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is most entertaining, subtly and gently comic. And as McCall Smith says it’s about ‘those small things in life that become immensely important to us … a novel that on one level is about very little [but] is a great novel about a great deal.’

It’s set just after the end of the Second World War, about the everyday life of Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman – in other words a spinster – in her early 30s. The daughter of a clergyman she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who could be relied upon to help out at Church jumble sales, garden fêtes, to make tea when required or to make up numbers at social gatherings. She finds herself involved in the quarrel between her new neighbours, Helena and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier, a married couple who live in the flat below her, as well as in the difficult relationship between Julian Mallory, the local vicar and his unmarried sister, when he finds himself trapped by Allegra Grey, a vivacious widow when she moves into their spare room.

I’ve been meaning to read some of Barbara Pym’s books for years, so I was delighted that I found it so enjoyable. It’s such a change from some of the books I’ve been reading recently, as Pym is such a keen observer of human nature, giving the little details that bring the characters to life. I found them all totally believable, each with their own eccentricities. She writes so simply but with such depth. It’s a slow-paced book but all the better because of that.

I read the Virago e-book edition, published in 2011, print length 299 pages.

3 thoughts on “Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

  1. This does sound like a very enjoyable read, Margaret. It reminds me just a bit of McCall Smith’s Scotland Street novels, actually, so it was interesting you mention him here. I can see it’d be a nice change from reading fast-paced or darker work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Margot, I’ve only read one of McCall Smith’s Scotland Street novels but I have read a few of his Isabel Dalhousie series and I can see what you mean.


  2. Sounds great to me, I love ‘a novel that on one level is about very little [but] is a great novel about a great deal’. They are a good mix of easy read and complex. Sounds a bit like Cranford and, if I recall correctly, some of Angela Thirkell’s work.


Comments are closed.