Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

EW(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is one of her best books, in my opinion – or maybe I am more used to her style than I was thirty years ago when I first read anything by her.

The phrase “excellent women” describes the sort of do-gooders who hang around anglo-catholic churches and other organisations doing menial tasks to give them some reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Some call them ‘holy fowl’. In the trade, we call them ‘clergy creepers’ or ‘cassock sniffers.’ Usually unmarried and not employed, a dying breed now that women tend to go out to work. To the narrator, the term conjures up virtuous dullness.

Many of these women lost sweethearts in World War One so we do well to be a little sympathetic.

Most of Pym’s novels are full of them, which maybe why her books went out of fashion for a long time. Yet Pym manages to make them constantly interesting despite their dull lives.

There is gentle satire in church functions, jumble sale etiquette and ion the passage about those attending the scholarly meeting at which Everard Bone delivers a paper. Their pomp and pretense of the audience and their questions and discussion are affectionately presented.

Marriage is a prevalent theme throughout this book. In 1950s London, being unmarried over the age of thirty dubbed a woman as a spinster with little to no hope of ever catching a husband. Mrs. Morris’ opinion that it is unnatural for a woman to live alone, Everard Bone and William Caldicote’s observations that excellent women such as Mildred should never marry, that marriage is for women who are less sensible and not as capable as Mildred, are typical views of the time. Mildred may be partly flattered to think that she is an excellent woman but also disappointed that men do not seem to see her as “the marrying kind.”

Many of Pym’s books contain anglo-catholic clergy, with their acolytes (literally their altar servers whose sexuality is ambiguous, to say the least), the spinster old ladies who have crushes on them and somehow they are ‘safe’ as Father isn’t the marrying kind but who are shocked if there is some romance going in because they resent that the Father’s time is being devoted to something other than the church the clergy are expected to remain available at all times. For more on the anglo-catholicism in this book see this

Mildred wasn’t used to dressing well and making up. As she observes other women, all dolled up, she remembers the biblical phrase ‘All flesh is grass.’

She has a conventional view of appropriate behaviour. She is shocked Helena Napier does not believe in performing any sort of domestic chores. Mildred was raised to believe that a woman’s duty is to her husband and the home.

She believes that women who aren’t wrapped up in families of their own and so have time, should devote themselves to taking care of others.

She thought that it would be inappropriate for her to become the Malorys’ tenant because she is an unmarried woman and although Winifred lives in the house, Julian is an unmarried man. The only reason Allegra Gray’s presence is appropriate is because she is the widow of a fellow clergyman.

When she meets Everard on the street, she is embarrassed that she is not wearing stockings or a hat and tries to avoid meeting his gaze.

Who knew: learned that a package or envelope sealed with white of egg cannot be steamed open.

The description of the lunchtime service on Ash Wednesday suggests that Pym didn’t do her research very well. The description of office workers leaving early to get back to work is accurate but not the notion that Mildred had her lunch first. If this service was a mass with ashing, she would have gone fasting. If not, when did she go to mass with ashing, since evening masses were virtually unheard of in those days?

I am always amused when the hymn ‘Hail thee, festival day’ comes round with the Vaughan Williams tune. Not only is one walking in procession but also trying to fit words with differing numbers of syllables into an impossible tune. Interesting that Mildred had the same problem back in those days. Perhaps Ralph enjoys the joke he has played on us all.

Of church being dull in August: Sundays after Trinity; even the highest church could not escape them and it was sometimes difficult to remember whether we were at Trinity eight, nine or ten. (Not so – what about the feasts of the Transfiguration and Assumption?)

People talked of ‘Roman fever’ and of ‘going over to Rome’ yet Mildred rightly observes that some of their buildings lack pulling power: Not here, I thought, would one be senti­mentally converted to Rome, for there was no warm rosy darkness to hide in, no comfortable confusion of doctrines and dogmas; all would be reasoned out and clearly explained,

There’s a humanist memorial service – rare back then. As was the attitude with which I fully concur: `Missionaries have done a lot of harm,’ said Mrs Bone firmly. The natives have their own religions which are very ancient, much more ancient than ours. We have no business to try to make them change.’

After reading this book one is bound to agree with the sentiment behind Rocky’s question: ‘Why do churches always have to be arranging bazaars and jumble sales? One would think that was the only reason for their existence.’


“I sometimes thought how strange it was that I should have managed to make a way for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive,”

“No answer seemed to be needed or expected to this question, and we laughed together, a couple of women against the whole race of men,”

“You should see my bedside table, such a clutter of objects, cigarettes, cosmetics, aspirins, glasses of water, the Golden Bough, a detective story, and any object that happens to take my fancy,”

“I hesitated at the top of the stairs, feeling nervous and stupid, for this was a situation I had not experienced before, and my training did not seem to be quite equal to it,”

“I lay awake feeling thirsty and obscurely worried about something,”

“I could see very well what she meant, for an unmarried woman with no ties could very well become unwanted,”

“Life is disturbing enough as it is without these alarming suggestions. I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman,”

“I accepted the compliment as gracefully as I could, but I was sufficiently unused to having anybody make any comment on my appearance to find it embarrassing to have attention drawn to be in any way,”

“My heart sank as I recognized familiar landmarks. I could almost imagine myself a schoolgirl again, arriving at the station on a wet September evening for the autumn term and smelling the antiseptic smell of the newly scrubbed cloak rooms,”

“I went back to my flat, puzzling a little about this friendly overture. I was sure that she did not really like me, or at best thought of me as a dim sort of person, whom one neither liked nor disliked, and I did not feel that I really cared for her very much either,”

“Inside it was a sobering sight indeed, and one to put us all in the mind of futility of material things and our own mortality,”

“I’m not used to going into public houses, so I entered rather timidly, expecting a noisy, smoky atmosphere and a great gust of laughter,”

“I noticed a group of priests looking down on us from the upper deck, and I felt that somehow the Pope and his Dogmas had triumphed after all,”

“The truth was, I thought, looking once more at the letter on my desk, which would not now be finished tonight, that I was exhausted with bearing other people’s burdens, or burthens as the nobler language of our great hymn writers put it,”

“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.”

“My normal appearance is very ordinary and my clothes rather uninteresting, but the new dress I had bought showed an attempt, perhaps misguided, to make myself look different,”

“We were, superficially at any rate, a very unlikely pair to become friendly. She was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt.”

“She was dressed, as usual, in an odd assortment of clothes, most of which had belonged to other people. It was well known that Winifred got most of her wardrobe from the garments sent to the parish jumble sales, for such money as she had was never spent on herself but on Good – one could almost say Lost – Causes, in which she was an unselfish and tireless worker.”

“I suppose I had taken to using a little more make-up, my hair was more carefully arranged, my clothes a little less drab. I was hardly honest enough to admit even to myself that meeting the Napiers had made this difference and I certainly did not admit it to Dora.”

`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.'”

“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.”

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1 Comment »

  1. […] ‘ Yes, I’ve seen advertisements,’ [Mildred] admitted, ‘and they have different names. Lambeth is very expensive, but Pax is quite cheap. It seems as if it ought to be the other way round.’ ….It was dark and warm inside the church and there was a strong smell of incense. I began to wonder idly whether it was the cheaper brands that smelt stronger, like shag tobacco or inferior tea, but I was sure that Father Thames would have only the very best. I noticed a few professional details, candles burning before the rather brightly coloured statue of our patron saint, a violet stole flung carelessly over one of the confessionals which had curtains of purple brocade. This one had Father Thames’s name above it; those of the assistant priests looked somehow inferior, perhaps because the curtains were not of such good quality material — there could surely not be all that much difference in the quality of the spiritual advice. see https://gaymensbookclubbristol.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/excellent-women-barbara-pym/ […]

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