Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain.
The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried clergyman’s daughter in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in ‘the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’, in 1950’s London. Mildred lives off a small annuity left to her by her deceased father, and works part-time for the Society for the Care of Distressed Gentlewomen, helping gentlewomen who have fallen on bad times – a cause very near to her heart, as she felt that she “was just the kind of person who might one day become one”. The rest of her time she spends attending local High Anglican church and helping the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred.
Her quiet life is thrown into turmoil, when new tenants move in the downstairs flat, with which Mildred shares a bathroom. Helena and Rockingham Napier married hastily during the war, and are a glamorous, unconventional couple. Rocky is a charming naval officer who spent the war in Italy, while his wife, the anthropologist Helena, did research in Africa. Mildred is soon drawn into their lives: their marriage is a turbulent one, and they confide to her their marital problems; later, she even starts attending lectures at the Learned Anthropological Society. Through the Napiers, Mildred meets another unconventional anthropologist, Everard Bone, who may or may not be having an affair with Helena.
To make matters more complicated for Mildred, a newly arrived, glamorous and possibly predacious widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the Malorys’ rectory, stealing Julian’s heart and causing a domestic crisis among the siblings. With both the Napiers and the Malorys running into difficulties, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman are more than ever in demand, and she never hesitates to put them into good practice.
The expression excellent women is used here as a condescending reference to the way spinsters were perceived by society at the time: capable women who are often taken for granted and led to perform menial tasks; supportive women who are always relied upon whenever others are in need of help of any kind, as it is assumed that an unmarried woman has no problems of her own. “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.”
People are frequently taking her for granted – and she is deeply aware of it. Although Mildred is surrounded by dull, self-important, foolish men – the type of men who are not even good as romantic fantasies, let alone as husbands – all her friends are adamant that she would be better off if she got married. The Napiers take a patronising view of her, and are intent on trying to match her with someone. They even talk about her – in her presence – as if she were not there. The parishioners assume that Mildred is suffering from rejection when Julian takes to Allegra, but all Mildred feels is embarrassment for the fact that she had no romantic interest in Julian in the first place. “Love is rather a terrible thing,” she muses, “Not perhaps my cup of tea.”
The highlight of the book for me is the contrast you draw between what people think and expect of Mildred; the way she seems to act accordingly to their expectations; and her sharp, wild mind, her deep awareness of those contradictions. While she never does anything unconventional and spends her life acting virtuously, privately she hates being seen as virtuous, and her voice spares no one – the church, men, academia, not even herself. “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.”
She is sharp-witted, relentlessly wry, self-deprecating, and clever. Her self-deprecation sounds almost as if she were mocking the way people believe she should think about herself. “Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person.” As it is, she is not a very reliable narrator either. “My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.”
Privately, Mildred refuses to play the role society might assume she will play: she is not a desperate spinster looking for a husband (mostly, she views men as dull nuisances); while people believe she is on the periphery of everyone’s lives, she is called upon to help and solve every major conflict; in the scholarly meetings at the Anthropological Society, while everyone assumes that she must be in awe with the knowledge being displayed, she immediately cuts through the pomposity and pretence of it all – she is having none of it.
While all of Mildred’s acquaintances think they know what she is feeling and what is best for her, she is the one more deeply aware that they don’t even know what is best for themselves. You give voice to societies preconceptions, but you do it through a sharp filter: Mildred seems to be accepting those preconceived ideas about herself, but in truth she is mocking them. Here the character who is normally laughed at – the spinster – is the one satirizing from the inside.
Mildred has the last laugh, and that’s such a delight, my dear.
“‘Of course you’ve never been married,’ she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women.” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite somebody eating spaghetti?” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“In the train we read the school magazine, taking a secret pleasure in belittling those of the Old Girls who had done well and rejoicing over those who had failed to fulfil their early promise. ‘“Evelyn Brandon is still teaching Classics at St Mark’s, Felixstowe,”’ Dora read in a satisfied tone. ‘And she was so brilliant. All those prizes she won at Girton – everyone thought she would go far.’ ‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘and yet in a sense we all go far, don’t we? I mean far from those days when we were considered brilliant or otherwise.’” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“Inside it was a sobering sight indeed and one to put us all in mind of the futility of material things and of our own mortality. All flesh is but as grass … I thought, watching the women working at their faces with savage concentration, opening their mouths wide, biting and licking their lips, stabbing at their noses and chins with powder-puffs.” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“‘What will you do after we’ve gone?’ Helena asked. ‘Well, she had a life before we came,’ Rocky reminded her. ‘Very much so – what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.’ ‘I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn’t have a full life in the accepted sense,’ said Helena. ‘Oh, she’ll marry,’ said Rocky confidently. They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there. ‘Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,’ suggested Helena. ‘That would widen her outlook.’ ‘Yes, it might,’ I said humbly from my narrowness. ‘But then she would get interested in some little tribe somewhere and her life might become even more narrow,’ said Rocky. We discussed my future until a late hour, but it was hardly to be expected that we should come to any practical conclusions.” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“‘Personally, I can’t imagine anything I should like less than the love of a good woman. It would be like – oh – something very cosy and stifling and unglamorous, a large grey blanket – perhaps an Army blanket.’” ― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
“I began piling cups on a tray. I suppose it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place to chose than the sink, where neither of the men would follow me?”
― Barbara Pym,
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2006, 231 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection, 2008, 288 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 2009, 304 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1952
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was read for The Classics Spin #15, and reviewed in November for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club.