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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A marvellous book.
Spinsters, vicars, and anthropologists. It doesn't sound very promising material, but this is one of the best Pyms. While being quietly funny (for instance, the moment when the heroine, having tasted beer for the first time in a pub, is disappointed because it tastes like dishwater), it nevertheless conveys the pathos of the lives of ordinary people like the vicar's...
Published on 20 Dec 2002 by christinekendell

versus
2.0 out of 5 stars Caveat emptor
Feel free to see this as reflection on me rather than Barbara Pym, but I really struggled with this. As, I suspect, many others, I came to this through reading about the recommendation and support of Philip Larkin for Ms. Pym, but it didn't work for me, as much as I wanted it to. Perhaps age, class and gender got in the way, but essentially, I found I couldn't somehow...
Published 3 months ago by Davey


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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A marvellous book., 20 Dec 2002
This review is from: Excellent Women (Paperback)
Spinsters, vicars, and anthropologists. It doesn't sound very promising material, but this is one of the best Pyms. While being quietly funny (for instance, the moment when the heroine, having tasted beer for the first time in a pub, is disappointed because it tastes like dishwater), it nevertheless conveys the pathos of the lives of ordinary people like the vicar's unmarried sister, terribly distressed at the spite of his fiancee.
Mildred, the heroine, tells her story in the first person. She is a pillar of the parish who is drawn into the more exciting and dramatic world of her neighbours in the flat below, and then into anthropological circles. This last gives rise to a great deal of humour, as BP makes anthropology sound so ridiculous, if worthy.
One of the great things about BP is the way major charcters in one novel appear as minor characters in another; so, for instance, Allegra Grey is going to move to the parish of, so to speak, "A Glass of Blessings."
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I was not really first in anybody's life. I could so very easily be replaced.", 30 Jan 2009
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
Sly and subtle, this comic novel by one of England's most under-recognized novelists depicts the life of its main character so poignantly that readers will find themselves as close to tears as they may be to chuckles. Mildred Lathbury, at thirty-one, already regards herself as a spinster, a woman who has completely repressed her inner self so that she can lead an "excellent" life. Working for the Society for the Care for Aged Gentlewomen during the day, she also helps Fr. Julian Malory and his sister Winifred at the rectory and in church during her spare time. Except for these activities and a few outings with similarly "excellent" single women, she has no social life, except for her once-a-year dinner date with a male friend.

Set in 1952, the novel follows the life of Mildred as it suddenly becomes a bit more "exciting," at least by Mildred's standards. A married couple, the Napiers, move into the house where she lives, and she makes an effort to get to know them. Rockingham Lathbury (Rocky) has been an officer (and playboy) in Italy during the war; his wife Helena is an anthropologist who has been working on a project in Africa with a male anthropologist, Everard Bone. It quickly becomes clear that the marriage is having problems, and Mildred gets drawn in. At the same time, Fr. Julian Malory, whom Mildred believed that she would serve forever, announces his engagement to Allegra Gray, a clergyman's widow who is renting a room at the rectory.

Within this simple framework, author Barbara Pym minutely examines the lives of Mildred and "excellent women" like her who believe that they "must not allow [themselves] to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people's." As Mildred's life gradually expands and she begins to become just a bit more assertive (and even to have a drink), she also begins to draw some attention from Rocky Napier and Everard Bone.

Through Mildred's intentionally limited relationships, Pym skewers the social mores of the day among the excellent women, the men who take them for granted, and the church which encourages (and benefits from) their selfless devotion. Pym's humor is so subtle, however, that one may be tempted, at first, to take the novel at face value, but Mildred is such an extremely excellent woman that the reader sees the absurdities of her behavior and of the society which encourages the Mildreds of the world to lead the lives they do. Mildred is living the life that she was rewarded for when she was a child. Still childlike, however, she inspires sympathy at the same time that the reader sees that she has never made her own choices, an absurdity that Pym exploits in grand fashion. n Mary Whipple

Some Tame Gazelle, 1950
Jane and Prudence, 1953
Less Than Angels, 1955
Glass of Blessings, 1958
No Fond Return of Love, 1961
An Unsuitable Attachment, 1963
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars reminiscent of a gentler age..., 10 Dec 2008
Superb characterisation, witty, evocative prose..this is a positive jewel of a book. The delightfully witty observations of Mildred are a joy to read.
Barbara Pym? A most 'excellent woman and author'
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Women, 22 Mar 2007
By 
A. Hope "bookcrossing ali" (Birmingham, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I was recently reccommended Barbara Pym, by a friend who knew I had enjoyed similar books to hers. This is the first one that I have read. What a treat it was. They just don't write books like this anymore I'm sorry to say. Mildred is a sweet likeable character from another time - considered middle aged at just over thirty - and pitied for being unmarried. In it Barbara Pym seems to be raising the issue of how it is society measures a woman's usefulness - and suggests that "the excellent women" of the title are the ones that people so often depend upon, but never marry - a question which in itself dates the book I suppose - but at the time may have been true for some women at least. I will be reading more by this author soon.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible,..., 22 Mar 2011
By 
John P. Jones III (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
...such an excellent woman." And a bit later in the novel: "`You could consider marrying an excellent woman?' I asked in amazement. "But they are not for marrying.'" Barbara Pym's use of the title phrase is wryly ironic throughout the book. The women of excellence are the self-effacing, non-entities, bound for, or have already embraced, what was once called spinsterhood. They often found fulfillment clustered in church auxiliaries, polishing the brass candles, and arranging the flowers for the much more important pastor, a male, who was in charge, and who would patronizingly "compliment" them with that phrase.

The novel is told through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, one of literature's unforgettable, empathetic characters. She is 30ishs. The period is early post-Second World War England. Some of the worship services are depicted in a church that still has its bomb damage un-repaired. The other characters are less sympathetic, and include Rockingham and Helena Napier, and the pastor Julian Malory and his sister, Winfred. The Napier's have moved into a "flat" downstairs, and indicative of the housing shortage of the period, share the common bathroom with Mildred. "Rocky" is a de-mobbed naval officer, rather shallow, whose previous duties included rendering solace to WRENS (British female naval officers) in Italy. His wife Helena is an anthropologist, who doesn't do the housekeeping well. Helena's colleague, Everard is also an anthropologist, and via both one gains insight into the workings of their profession, as well as the associated "learned" societies. The arrival of Allegra Grey, recently widowed from a clergyman, with her eyes on Pastor Malory, adds additional drama to the novel. But the drama is never high; the issues are not all-encompassing and grandiose. As Ms Lathbury says: "I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us--the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction."

Pym epitomizes classic understated British humor. She has that deft touch of selecting the precise detail that will resonate with the reader, and flesh out words that we use daily in graphic images. Clearly Mildred Lathbury is "self-effacing," and who could ever forget that after passages like: "I began taking off my apron and tidying my hair, apologizing as I did so, in what I felt was a stupid, fussy way, for my appearance. As if anyone would care how I looked or even notice me, I told myself scornfully." Or latter, when William has taken her to lunch, and he says, of the Nuits St. George wine: "`A tolerable wine, Mildred,' he said, `unpretentious, but I think you will like it.' `Unpretentious, just like me,' I said stupidly, touching the feather in my brown hat.'" Another complementary theme throughout the novel is how all the other characters routinely impose their problems upon Mildred. She realized it, but normally accepts them, and attempts to resolve them. At some level, I found the novel a wonderful antidote for any desire to live in a more integrated community. The anonymous life of the big city has much to be said for it.

Pym also weaves a certain level of erudition throughout the novel, which most likely reflected the actual level of the characters, before the days of television. For example, the Pastor quotes Keats to Mildred, all too fittingly:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs.

Mildred thinks the last line would be a great title for a novel; I checked at Amazon, and yes, it is still `available.'

As for observations on the human condition, consider Mildred's comment: "Yes, men are sometimes taken in. They don't ever quite see the terrible depths that we do."

Does Mildred get "rescued" from spinsterhood, as every empathetic reader would hope? Yet another compelling reason to read this marvelous, "balanced and sensible", in a very British sort of way, 5-star plus novel.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on May 26, 2010)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars im glad i read it!, 11 April 2010
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This review is from: Excellent Women (VMC) (Paperback)
I had never heard of Barbara Pym but i saw 'Excellent Women' in a bookshop and the title stuck in my head. I decided to order it from Amazon and im glad i did as ive discovered another writer who will no doubt be one of my favorites. Im not sure everyone would enjoy 'Excellent women'as some people need to have alot going on in a book to enjoy it. I really liked all the observations and attention to detail. I definately recommend this book and i can't wait to read another Barbara Pym book!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not so dated ..., 21 Sep 2009
Initially seemed a lightweight book but a keenly observed and light-hearted look at the role of a certain type of woman in society - and still relevant.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent reading of Pym's novel, 7 Oct 2000
By 
Lynette Baines (Melbourne, Australia) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This is one of Barbara Pym's finest novels, and one of her funniest. Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her 30's is living in a flat in London after the Second World War. She works part time helping distressed gentlewomen, and is one of the "excellent women" who are involved in her local church. When new neighbours arrive, she is taken into a different world, where anthropologists discuss kinship diagrams, and charming Naval husbands take her out for a drink in the afternoon. At the same time, she is dealing with her friend Winifred, whose brother the vicar is taking too much of an interest in their new lodger,an attractive widow. Juliet Stevenson's reading of the novel is wonderful. She differentiates Mildred's irony from Winifred's almost puppy-like enthusiasm, and Helena Napier's sophistication from Everard Bone's pose of world-weariness with ease. An excellent recording.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading for Pym fans., 19 May 2003
This review is from: Sweet Dove Died (Paperback)
This is somehow an atypical Pym novel, or perhaps it's more true to say that Leonora is an atypical heroine, less easy to relate to than most. She has money and a certain position, yet her life is empty.
There is an attempt to be "modern," with some bisexuality and a gay man; as usual, this is done elegantly and quietly - BP had some understanding of this what we would call "lifestyle." These characters, however, are nothing like as much fun as Piers and Keith in "A Glass of Blessings," although the Keats scholar, Ned, is what Leonora would describe as "amusing."
It's a sad novel with amusing (not "amusing") parts. I think BP wrote it when she was beginning to be ill, so perhaps that explains something.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The excellent Miss Pym!, 8 Jan 2010
By 
Wynne Kelly "Kellydoll" (Coventry, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Excellent Women (VMC) (Paperback)
Barbara Pym is one of the undiscovered treasures of fiction. She writes with a gentleness and wry humour (usually) about the lives of women who are not the most beautiful or talented or desirable. But nonetheless these women have charms of their own - especially in their observation of the behaviour and dalliances of others.

Mildred is an unmarried woman in her thirties who thinks that the chances of marriage are slipping away from her. Things are not helped by the fact that all the men in her life are such clots! There are some nice observations of the male "helpers" at the church jumble sale who leave all the work to the women but are first in line for tea and cakes.... She is also puzzled by the fact that the married women she comes across are physically attractive but hopeless at most everyday skills.

Excellent Women was published in 1952 and very much reflects Britain of the time - such as the need to share a bathroom with fellow tenants.

Barbara Pym became rather unfashionable in the 1960s but it is good to see all her books reissued.
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Excellent Women (VMC)
Excellent Women (VMC) by Barbara Pym (Paperback - 3 Sep 2009)
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