Excellent Women - Barbara Pym

Updated: Jan 11, 2019


Let me start by saying, this book isn’t for everybody. I would probably suggest it to my mum, grandma or someone fascinated by the intricacies of daily life back in the 1950s. The book isn't packed full of action, nothing to keep you up at night waiting to turn the page, and yet I found it a strangely gratifying read. What came across was a very honest representation of life and I imagine this would be an exceptionally enjoyable trip down memory lane for the older reader. The story follows the daily ins and outs of life for “spinster” Mildred. For me, the book's most interesting aspect is its subconscious contrast of the stark difference between life ‘then’ and ‘now’. The importance of village politics, the tiniest bit of change sending ripples of anxiety through the parishioners, the taboo over divorce or alteration (do u mean altercation?) over expected social behaviour. *Spoiler alert* I guess the whole way through the novel I expected Mildred to end up with Everard, the slightly peculiar anthropologist.  That being said, I don’t really know why I was disappointed when this did not occur. I guess back then and in the grand scheme of things he would have made an adequate husband, but personally, the idea of marrying any of the men in that book fills me with horror. One character I particularly routed for was Helena, the strong independent woman with an admirable career surrounded by the churchgoers and wives making a home for their husbands. Here again though, is where the book fails to create complete storylines in order to satisfy the reader. Instead, the reader sees a depiction of genuine, real life where things aren’t perfect, shocking or sometimes even that interesting. For example, Helena, upon leaving the (in my opinion) self-obsessed, self-pitying Rocky, moved home with her mother before subsequently realising that this was in many ways worse than being stuck in a loveless marriage. I guess I felt disappointed in her. Yet who am I to judge, as a woman's choices back then were far more limited and constrained.  Therefore, for me, the real value of this book was in how it enlightened me by highlighting how lucky I am to have both the independence and lack of social restrictions that are so blatantly apparent to the women in this novel. While the modern-day certainly has its downfalls, I felt deflated by the chronicles of Mildred’s life in the elderly home, the church and the occasional jumble sale. And yet, she had more independence than most. I did hope that she ended up married, but to someone who actually inspired her rather than the dull Julian Mallory or the overall disappointing Everard Bone who I had so much hope for throughout the book.   Overall, Pym's novel reminded me of my grandmother and for that, it holds much beauty. I’m reminded of how she appreciates the smallest things in life such as a slice of cake, a good cup of tea, the church community and a bargain buy down at a charity shop. I guess there is much to be said for that era in time, the lack of greed and appreciation of day-to-day workings which I find to be in short supply nowadays.  I would give this book a 6/10 but I’m sure for others it would be much higher.

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