Where to begin?! I absolutely adored this book. It’s full of interesting women, clever observations, and examines important issues regarding women in the 1950s. I had never heard of it before, and read it completely on a whim when it popped up in my recommended books feed.
Excellent Women, set in early 1950s England, chronicles a brief period in the life of Mildred Lathbury, a young spinster who is very involved in her local church. Mildred is a generous and unassuming person who often gets swept into other people’s affairs without noticing. She is an excellent woman — one of those well-mannered, dutiful, hardworking women who everyone needs but no one wants to marry.
Mildred lives a quiet life in her own comfort zone. However, this all changes when the dashing Helena and Rockingham Napier move into the flat below her, pulling her into their circle of academic friends. This is an entirely new experience for the sheltered Mildred, who struggles through anthropology lectures and confusing dinners with Helena’s brooding colleague Everard Bone.
Mildred spends a great deal of the novel musing about her life and social etiquette:
I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.
This novel is so quietly funny and so British. I just loved it. Pym’s top-notch writing is full of clever observations mixed with witty repartee. And the names simply roll off the tongue (use your best British accent here): Rockingham and Helena Napier, Everard Bone, Julian Mallory, Allegra Gray — just brilliant!
I found myself comparing Excellent Women to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary — you know, full of “one must not this” and “one might think that,” which I love. Mildred could be Bridget, if only Bridget were religious and had a little less dating experience. Both women never quite manage to say the right thing, have hilarious wardrobe issues, and have to deal with excruciatingly frustrating men.
However, despite my praises, I admit that the book moves along at a sedate pace and the humor is of a subtle variety. It’s a high comedy of manners with a slow-moving plot, which some readers may not enjoy.
I also want to add that this book was first published in 1952. Nevertheless, Pym’s writing still feels fresh and funny, and the issues raised are relevant and worth discussing.
Overall, I give this book 4.5 stars. I enjoyed it immensely.
I listened to this as an audiobook narrated by Jayne Entwistle (another awesome name). She’s a brilliant reader who sounds a bit like Judi Dench, and I really enjoyed how she brought the characters to life. Her reading of Mildred’s little musings was also well done. I give this one 4.5 stars for narration as well.