My wife has read most of the works by Barbara Pym, but not Excellent Women, which is why she selected it for our book club. I had mixed feelings about it. From what she’s told me and what I gathered from reading the back of the book, it seemed like some sort of old-lady-BBC program. Thankfully, after getting through the first half of the novel, I was nicely surprised at the turn of events.
The book takes place in London in the 1950’s. The protagonist is Mildred Lathbury (it’s such so British it almost hurts), who’s living on her own adjusting to life as a potential spinster. Ms. Pym nicely doesn’t give us Mildred’s age until twenty pages in. She’s thirty. It’s almost comical how much she’s dreading being a spinster. I had to laugh because just recently I turned thirty and I have several friends, male and female, who just turned thirty. It’s hard for me to imagine any of them being considered spinsters.
While I at first thought Mildred to be whiny, once the conflicts all came to a head, I actually began to root for her. Suddenly her whining didn’t seem so self-driven as it was her questioning herself due to societal pressures from her social network. She’s constantly being questioned whether she’ll marry, and every single man is seen as a suitor for her. Married women look down on her and make her to feel inferior, and men, married and single, take advantage of her singleness by dumping all their problems on her day and night and don’t consider that she has feelings and boundaries too.
By the end of the novel it became clear what Ms. Pym was trying to tell me and why she titled her book Excellent Women. It’s sort of a cautionary tale. That excellent women tend to be treated quite poorly by society. Because they are sincere and stand firm for their beliefs, they don’t marry the first guy who proposes and they don’t ensnare men just to have husbands. But that’s not what makes them excellent. It’s the fact that even though society punishes them, they don’t become cynical or bitter. Instead they keep their sincerity and honesty and live a good life being a good person. And those who would see them succumb to the pressure usually leave and it’s other excellent men and women who remain in their lives.
Oh that my daughters (if I have any in the future) would be considered excellent women. Mildred is a great role model. She’s joining my cadre of female role models I would want my daughters to follow along with Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott, and Katniss Everdeen. Welcome to the club Ms. Lathbury!