Barbara Pym’s novel, Excellent Women, is a classic in American literature. Set in the early 1950s, Pym captures the social issues regarding women’s role in society after the Great War.
I’m so grateful to David Mitchell who works at Cornell University Press and chose it as for my fiction reading group. This bunch of folks concern themselves with too much non-fiction in their professional lives and search for the classics we’ve always wanted to read.
And Barbara Pym is a classic. She creates a credible protagonist in Mildred Lathhbury whose status as a single woman renting a flat implicates her in the lives and loves of her neighbors and church community. The local vicar, an anthropologist, a schoolmate’s brother, and ultimately the seductive personality of a retired military officer are her prospective pairings.
In this commedy of manner, Mildred can’t help but fall for Rockingham Napier, the dashing officer whose duties involved charming the pants off most of Europe. Little does his wife Helene know, Rocky is contemplating separation and possibly, oh no, divorce. I discovered a term of slang, slut, was used in the 1950s to describe a woman who failed to keep a clean house. The precarious status of single women is hilariously demonstrated in this tale of a simple gal whose spinster nose for romance, anthropology, and marital disturbances make her a keen observer of how to make her own path in the shifting sands of cultural expectations and how to get a life.”
Not to be a spoiler, the happy ending of the story for this female protagonist is a future spent indexing and editing the work of a church goer, but rather emotionally cold and professionally pragmatic, man looking for a wife who is an excellent woman to advance his professional career. You’ll have to read the book in order to fully appreciate its humor.