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 (Mildred’s one pale act of rebellion against her old life is her choice of a parish her parents would have found distressingly “High”), and a meticulous housekeeper whose London flat contains all the best pieces from the rectory of her childhood, Mildred seems unshakably fixed in the role of “excellent woman.” Her shelf of bedside reading, a mixture of devotional texts and cookery books, bespeaks the range of her life-or, more precisely, the sphere of her actions.
Mildred’s inner world, like that of many a Pym protagonist, is livelier. She belongs to that class of humanity her friend the perpetual bachelor William Caldicote calls “observers of life”-and the arrival of new people to observe brings more excitement than she expects, even lures her away from the sidelines. The first exotic creatures to enrich mundane Pimlico are Helena and Rockingham (known as “Rocky”) Napier, who come to live in the flat adjoining Mildred’s. Helena, who is everything Mildred is not, dresses smartly, proves indifferent to such domestic matters as cooking and cleaning,...
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avoids and loudly declares her avoidance of organized religion, practices a learned profession, anthropology, and, though married, cherishes an unrequited passion for her anthropological collaborator, the cool, handsome, and conventional Everard Bone. Rocky Napier, recently released from military duties that consisted of arranging an admiral’s social schedule and exerting his charm on awkward Wren officers at the admiral’s parties, is just back from Italy. His warmth, good looks, worldliness, sympathetic gallantry, and fondness for domestic comforts strongly appeal to the feminine Mildred, whose practical services and tactful listening make her presence welcome to both Rocky and Helena. Mildred, half eager and half abashed to play confidante, thus finds herself observing a brave new world, the world of esoteric papers, alcoholic drinks, matrimonial discord, and extramarital attractions. Newest and strangest of all, Mildred ceases mere observation: She dresses more carefully, alters her habits, finds herself stirred by more than sisterly feelings-first for Rocky, despite his obvious superficiality, then for Everard, a man she has never much liked or at least for whom she has not acknowledged her liking.
As the Napiers and the attendant cast of anthropologists have entered Mildred’s life, a new and exciting presence has complicated the daily routine of her good and naive friends the rector and his unmarried sister. Julian and Winifred Malory have decided to rent the spare flat in their house, and their tenant, Allegra Gray, soon comes to be more than simply that. Beautiful and charming in an artful way, Mrs. Gray is a clergyman’s widow and an orphan (though, as Mildred sharply notes, “a lot of people over thirty are orphans”). She is determined to remain in this unsupported state no longer and, having begun by becoming fast friends with both Malorys, soon has the rector of St. Mary’s engaged to her-an alliance Mildred contemplates with some dismay, partly from disappointment at Julian’s poor judgment, partly from sadness at the fate that is awaiting Winifred (whom Mrs. Gray proposes to dispatch to Mildred’s, or, barring that, to any place out of the rectory), but never from the feelings ascribed to her by the parishioners, who see Mildred, the chief “excellent woman,” as chief among the rector’s disappointed admirers.
At the novel’s end, the intrusive newcomers vanish from the parish of St. Mary’s. The Napiers, separated and then reunited, go off to their country cottage. Mrs. Gray, shown up for the selfish creature she is, leaves for more fashionable lodgings in Kensington. Excellent women of the Catholic sort succeed the Napiers in the flat adjoining Mildred’s, and the rectory flat goes to another pair of the Protestant sort, but Mildred’s life is not unaltered. Everard has a place in her thoughts and, one infers, in her heart. She will read his proofs, cook his meat-and ultimately marry him as readers of Excellent Women strongly suspect and readers of later Pym novels come to know.