Excellent Women resembles the other novels of the Barbara Pym canon in that it permits readers to spend something like a year involved in the lives of middle-class English people-most particularly in the life of an “excellent woman,” one of those responsible, genteel, educated, unmarried women, neither young nor old, rich nor poor, strikingly pretty nor hopelessly plain, who are towers of strength in parish affairs and who are expected to be similar bulwarks in the personal lives of the people who surround them. Excellent Women differs from most other Pym novels in that its point of view is firstperson. Rather than filter the sayings and doings of the southwest London neighborhood through the moderating consciousness of a narrator with access to the minds of all the characters, as was the case in her previous novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Pym here tells her story through the eyes of its protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, a deceptively bland and self-effacing soul whose values and attitudes color the reader’s impressions as crucially as her actions further the plot.
Though denial of a resemblance may be seen as an oblique form of acknowledging that likeness, Mildred informs her reader that she is “no Jane Eyre.” Mildred shares various qualities with that dutiful, high-minded, by no means beautiful literary heroine, but her story is no gothic tale of passions. It is a chronicle of everyday feelings and mundane incidents-ordinary things such as jumble sales, quarrels over household arrangements, lunches in cafeterias, scholarly papers read at learned societies, Old Girls’ reunions at school, and the festivals and more ordinary rites of the liturgical year. How the tale is told is everything-what goes on, fascinating incidents when seen through Mildred’s eyes, might be highly tedious if presented by someone less deftly observant.
What Mildred observes and amusingly, sometimes wistfully, chronicles in Excellent Women is what Jane Austen presents in Emma (1816): the disruption of a small community by the arrival of outsiders and the eventual restoration of equilibrium-but equilibrium with a difference. As the story opens, Mildred is comfortably settled in a quiet life in less-than-fashionable Pimlico, the part of London Pym herself then inhabited. As daughter of a country rector, Mildred is surprised at how soon after her parents’ deaths and her move to the city she has found herself a modus vivendi nearly identical to the village round of good works, church services, domestic duties, and mild social engagements she has left behind. A part-time worker at a society for the relief of distressed gentlewomen, a pillar of the local church of St. Mary’s...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)