“‘Now, Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”
First published in 1952, “Excellent Women” is the quiet, nearly pastoral story of Mildred Lathbury. Mildred is a stereotypical British spinster, a prudish busy-body equally entranced and repulsed by others who lives alone in post-war England.
“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 that there is no hope for her.”
She is among what she considers to be the ‘excellent women’, women who make men’s lives easier while being wholly invisible to them. Mildred is just what you expect; even her name is achingly perfect. She is delightfully buttoned-up, as is Pym’s writing, which is full of gentle snark and pursed-lip wit.
“He stood looking at me, confidently charming. I noticed that he was holding a bunch of chrysanthemums.
‘These are for you,’ he said, thrusting them at me. I saw that the stems had been broken very roughly and that they were not tied together at all.
‘Are they out of your garden?’ I asked.
‘Yes; I snatched them as I was hurrying for the train.’
Somehow they seemed a little less desirable now. He had not chosen them, had not gone into a shop for that purpose, they had just happened to be there. If he had gone into a shop and chosen them . . . I pulled myself up and told myself to stop these ridiculous thoughts, wondering why it is that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of fining that perhaps they may have just a little after all.”
“Excellent Women” was my first exposure to Barbara Pym, and it was a therapeutic pause in my reading – a step away from political strife, terrifying dystopia, and empathetic overload. Pym’s tale is light but not vapid. She writes of misogyny, of solitude, of stereotype, but with delicacy and warmth. Reading her book is sitting in a sunny window with a cup of tea and fluffy lap cat; it is restorative, offering just the right balance of substance and mirth.