Excellent Women can edit and index!


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.

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6 Comments

Filed under Just one good reader

6 responses to “Excellent Women can edit and index!

  1. Sharn

    I really liked your review – it gives quite a modern edge to the novel which is often seen as being dated. I think that Pym includes universal themes so avoids that problem. Just one little matter, the novel is English, not American. You might enjoy reading some of her other work. It is listed on the Barbara Pym site, which includes information about the Pym Conference which is held annually in Boston (another is held at St Hilda’s, Pym’s college at Oxford, also annually).

    • One little matter? Thanks Sharn for your kindness is pointing out my silly blunder and for implying Pym was an American author. And for pointing me to the annual Barbara Pym conference held in Boston. The more impressive St. Hilda’s at Oxford requires a bit more travel for me across that big pond. You’ve given me more background information on the breadth and depth of Pym’s readers. I appreciate you leaving me a comment.

  2. Christine Shuttleworth

    I enjoyed the appreciation of one of my favourite novelists, Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is one of her best books, but several others are still, or again, in print. But what a gaffe to refer to a book by the very English Pym as a ‘classic of American literature’!

    • Thanks Christine for your comments. On this side of the pond we Americans are quite adept at laying claim to others’ works and traditions as part of our own. You are spot on for laughing at my description of Pym’s book as a classic of American literature; from your spot on the isles. I simply appropriated the work as American in style. Pym seems so undecidedly British and the impact of her visit to the US shows itself in a spunky dame named Mildred. And so American of me to be so grandiose as to lay claim to her classic. My apologies. I could simply edit the blog, but my blunder has generated some good humor and new traffic from real book lovers to my blog. What should I read next of Pym’s?

  3. Christine Shuttleworth

    Thanks for taking my comment in such good part! I didn’t mean to be mean. Among my favourites are No Fond Return of Love, and Some Tame Gazelle. Lucky you to be reading these marvellous books for the first time.

  4. Christine Shuttleworth

    Oh, just one more thing, you did mean World War II, didn’t you, not the Great War? The latter term usually refers to World War I.

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