Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The plot of Excellent Women centers on Mildred Lathbury, her thoughts about the other characters in the novel and her actions toward them. She injects herself into the lives of a young couple, Helena and Rockingham Napier. He is something of a low-grade ladies man, and she is an anthropologist. Mildred befriends them as a couple and individually. Their marital difficulties generate varied expressions of concern from Mildred. Father Julian Malory and his unmarried sister, Winifred, are another pair of characters. St. Mary’s is Mildred’s church, and Julian and Winifred are significant friends to Mildred; however, she still has the capacity for ironical remarks about them. It is Julian’s engagement to the widow Allegra Gray that creates the biggest concern in this comic novel of manners. An egotistical anthropologist, Everard Bone, “courts” Mildred but in a disjointed and inconsistent manner; his is a very satisfied existence. Dora and William Caldicote, brother and sister, are the last major characters in the novel. Dora’s friendship with Mildred has an off-putting quality, and William is only interested in his own feelings and experiences.

The men in this novel are not attractive or strong. They are indecisive, lacking in some moral quality. They are not evil; they are simply ineffectual. The women, on the other hand, are “excellent.” Except for Allegra, the husband-seeking widow, they all have qualities that contribute to their enduring strength, allowing them to carry on from where life has deposited them.

In this first-person narrative, Mildred tells of her relationship with the Napiers and the Malorys. Her story reveals much about them, but more important,...

(The entire section is 697 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Excellent Women is not, in a strict sense, a feminist novel. Pym’s work is not driven by ideology and politics. Rather, her subjects and ironic style can be traced to Jane Austen—a worthy tradition, indeed, in the history of the British novel. To appreciate Pym’s art, her biography is instructive. Hers was a middle-class background. She started writing when she was sixteen. Pym graduated from the University of Oxford, and all of her life she read widely. She lived at home after graduation but moved to London just before the start of World War II in 1939. She had traveled much in Europe. During the war, she joined the WRNS, a women’s military support group, that did varied tasks on the home front. After the war, she worked for the International African Institute, where she became a student of anthropology. Writing constantly, she published six novels from 1950 to 1961. Then, in a bizarre turn of events worthy of a Pym novel, by the 1960’s publishers were rejecting her manuscripts; apparently, her material had become “dated.” Her life was then bounded by English literature, the Anglican church, and her work at the institute. She continued to write, however, and as a result of praise from Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, her novel Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977; three other novels followed. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the highest literary award in English letters. Pym died in 1980.

Pym’s literary landscape, like Austen’s, is small but deep with insight. Her subject is men and women and their experiences with one another. Often the men are dull-witted and vague about the consequences of their actions. Pym forgives them and the women involved by stressing the common humanity of all and by giving emphasis to the comic side of the human condition. She explores the lives of ordinary people who, upon closer examination, are not ordinary at all. Isolated by choice or by circumstance from the ideological wars of the women’s liberation movement that was so strong in the United States and England, Pym produced a remarkable series of novels, such as Excellent Women, and unforgettable people, such as Mildred Lathbury, an excellent woman.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The novel is narrated by Mildred. The author succeeds at the difficult task of making her constantly interesting to the reader, in spite of...

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The phrase "excellent woman," mentioned numerous times by several characters, refers to a type of lady common to all times in England,...

(The entire section is 110 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In addition to the many easily drawn parallels to Jane Austen, one may compare Barbara Pym to any number of twentieth century British women...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Glass of Blessings

Pym is best known for studies of unmarried women and their position in society, but she has also done...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Cotsell, Michael. Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. This brief but heavily factual biography is well researched. With a select bibliography, Cotsell ties the particulars of Pym’s life to her novels. He believes that, unable to identify with or accept the England of the 1960’s, Pym made a pained comedy out of her newfound incongruity.

Holt, Hazel. A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym. London: Macmillan, 1990. Written by Pym’s friend and literary executor. Holt had also worked with Pym at the International African Institute for nearly twenty-five years. Holt provides a warm portrait of a woman who was given to...

(The entire section is 457 words.)