Friday, February 25, 2011

Excellent Woman

In my ongoing quest to edit my bookshelves and make room for new books, I have been revisiting some of my favorite writers and treasured editions of their books.  One of my favorites is British novelist Barbara Pym.

Often compared to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym wrote novels of high comedy and shrewd insights into human nature.   I discovered her novels many years ago when I read "Excellent Women," her 1952 novel, and was immediately enchanted.  Here was an author who wrote with the humor, irony, and sharp insights into human nature of a twentieth-century Jane Austen.

Like Austen, she dealt with important issues filtered through the microcosm of a small, circumscribed world.  I have returned to "Excellent Women" many times over the years, finding pleasure and comfort in the funny, wise, and good-natured voice of its narrator Mildred Lathbury.

Barbara Pym

This book is about Mildred, one of those "excellent women" who fill up the pages of so many of Pym's books.  A clergyman's daughter and spinster in the England of the 1950's, Mildred describes her occupation as "part-time work at an organization for impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my heart as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one."  Describing herself as mousy and plain, Mildred tells the reader, "Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her."

Her closest friends are the vicar of her church and his sister, Julian and Winifred Mallory. Her peaceful existence is shaken when an estranged couple, handsome former naval officer, Rockingham Napier and his anthropologist wife, Helena, move in next door and draw Mildred into their world.  Another newcomer, Allegra Gray, an attractive widow, sets her cap for the vicar, whom everyone assumed Mildred would marry.  She also becomes involved with an anthropologist friend of the Napiers, Everard Bone.  The comedy that ensues, as well as Mildred's self-possession and astute observations of those around her, contribute to the success of this very funny novel.  One critic in 1977 called it one of "the funniest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past 75 years."

The six novels which many consider to be the canon of Barbara Pym's work are "Some Tame Gazelle," Excellent Women," "Jane and Prudence," "Less Than Angels," "A Glass of Blessings," and "No Fond Return of Love."  They were published between 1950 and 1961.  In them she creates a rich chronicle of human nature, as she depicts unassuming people engaged in the ordinary events of life -- jumble sales, meetings of the prehistoric society, tea with the vicar, lunchtime church services.  They are quiet novels which deal obliquely with large themes such as underlying loneliness and disappointment, the need for love, friendship, the value of community, and the beauty of the ordinary.

There are many comic moments, as when Mr. Bason, the housekeeper at the vicarage in "A Glass of Blessings," brags about occasionally "pinching" the vicar's priceless Faberge egg, taking it out of his apron and tossing it into the air.  We laugh with the narrator.  Pym's books transport us to a quaint world, London and the countryside of England in the 1950's, peopled by gentlewomen and gentlemen, curates, anthropologists, civil servants, and academics, a world which is distinctly recognizable as Barbara Pym's own.

I love the story of Barbara Pym's literary career because it has such a "comeback kid" quality to it.  In 1949 she sent a revised version of "Some Tame Gazelle" (which she had written much earlier) to the publisher Jonathan Cape.  It was accepted and was published in 1950 to good reviews.  Her career as a published writer was launched.  Six novels in all were published during the next thirteen years.  They won her critical praise and some financial success.  She developed a devoted circle of readers and admirers.  Then suddenly it all came to a standstill.

In 1963, Pym submitted "An Unsuitable Attachment" to her publisher and it was rejected as being out of step with the times.  She revised it and sent it to other publishers.  In all, twenty publishers refused to publish it.  She entered what she called her literary "wilderness."

During the next 14 years, despite "moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again..." she continued to write.  "The Sweet Dove Died" and "Quartet in Autumn" were written during this time.

Then in 1977 Pym's literary fortune changed overnight.  In the January 21 issue of "The Times Literary Supplement," Barbara Pym was twice named (by Phillip Larkin and Lord David Cecil) as "the most underrated novelist of the century."  Her literary reputation was restored:  "Quartet in Autumn" was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  "The Sweet Dove Died" was published in 1978.  All of her novels were reprinted and in demand.
I think that Pym's novels continue to be loved by her many fans.  There is something about returning to her books that feels like visiting an old friend.  Perhaps we return for the enduring value expressed in so many of her books, the importance of staying connected to others.  As we are daily faced by the realities of our very complex world, there is a place for peaceful moments where we celebrate small ordinary experiences. Barbara Pym's novels can take us to that place of laughter, familiarity, and small comforts, experiences that are so satisfying to us as readers. 


  1. Sounds wonderful!! Love her story as well as her novels!! I knew her name but had never read any of her books. You certainly make them sound delightful - will be looking for the Excellent Women volume as soon as I make a dent in my pile!!

  2. I love the covers! what a visual treat.....smiles.

  3. Anywhere I can buy them in WLA? Leaving on vacation tomorrow and would love a few!

  4. Hi Kathy, I would call Diesel books in Brentwood, or Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica. Her books are definitely still in print, but I'm not sure who has them locally. Start with "Excellent Women." Hope you are going somewhere fun!

  5. those book covers are so pretty. they make me want to read!! : )

  6. I haven't read any Barbara Pym since I was in college decades ago. Definitely, these are books that I need to reread.

  7. always wanted to read these books - and the covers are simply divine.

  8. I loved "Excellent Women." Now I want to read it again. and Yes, those covers are really beautiful.

  9. I just finished "Excellent Women" - and loved it. Thanks for the recommendation.