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Friday, 7 June 2013

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym, Reviewed.

I read the Folio Society edition of this novel, illustrated rather charmingly and with considerable insight, by Debra McFarlane. There’s something essentially apt about reading a book from the early 50s in the form of a hardback with appropriate plates. Set in the period just following World War II, and written in the first person by one of the ‘excellent women’ of the title, it should really be entirely of its time. The simple brilliance of the writing, the wonderful characterisation and the gently comic surface of a story bursting with subterranean passion, angst, desperation and injustice elevates the novel to the status of a minor classic.

There’s no violence, no sex, no foul language; yet all of humanity is here amongst the weary, caring, superficial, flirting, thoughtless, considerate, courageous, resigned and loving people that inhabit the pages. Church, though neither spirituality nor real faith, plays a significant part in the lives of the protagonists who attend the edifice but appear devoid of any passion for their religion, frequently gently mocking their membership of the club.

Miss Mildred Lathbury, who describes herself in the fourth paragraph of the first chapter as an unmarried clergyman’s daughter just over thirty and living alone without apparent ties, is far from the dull spinster we might expect. The gentle humour that suffuses the whole book often hides a deep pathos as the excellent women of the title go about their daily lives without hope of fulfilment in marriage, career or society in general. Being busy, showing and dealing with concern for their fellow human beings, whilst living grey, unnoticed lives, these are the women who make life easier, sometimes even possible, for those surrounding them.

The unexpressed intelligence, the unacknowledged charity, the unspoken desire, the unrecognised hopes and dreams of these single women is so exquisitely drawn that the reader feels every nuance of the subtle insults that surround them. Taken for granted, patronised, ignored, relied upon and rejected without thought, these women take on all those tasks that others find either boring or irrelevant until the jobs are neglected; only then are the quiet duties seen for the social glue they truly are, but not for very long, of course.

The society in which this novel takes place has largely disappeared, but the people and the circumstances remain. I laughed out loud many times whilst reading the book but always, under the surface, was a recognition that the humour sprang from deep inequalities of both gender and income. I was reminded of the best of British sitcoms where humour is mingled with pathos, each quality emphasising the other in a balance that works so well to entertain whilst putting across a message.


This is a story in which nothing of any significance to anyone outside the narrow confines of the small neighbourhood takes place. There are no earth-shattering events, no crime, nothing crude, nothing erotic. But it depicts lives lived in quiet, courageous desperation and does so with a deep affection for those described. I enjoyed it, and I suspect Mildred will live with me for a long time. Those who enjoy action and adventure will find this hard to read, but I thoroughly recommend it to all those who love romance in its best form, those who enjoy books with real characters, and those who find enjoyment in gentle humour.
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