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Excellent Women

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Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.


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Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

30 review for Excellent Women

  1. 4 out of 5

    Fabian

    With a sweetness reminiscent of Edith Wharton's gorgeous "The Age of Innocence," "Excellent Women" is proof, not solely of female excellence, but of the overall human goodness. Nothing short of miraculous, this novel about a wallflower who knows just how shitty men can often treat their counterparts, & how with much ease the ill treatment is endured, is both a classic & a must! I have never read a more compassionate or sympathetic voice, like that of our heroine's. Also, the quantity of With a sweetness reminiscent of Edith Wharton's gorgeous "The Age of Innocence," "Excellent Women" is proof, not solely of female excellence, but of the overall human goodness. Nothing short of miraculous, this novel about a wallflower who knows just how shitty men can often treat their counterparts, & how with much ease the ill treatment is endured, is both a classic & a must! I have never read a more compassionate or sympathetic voice, like that of our heroine's. Also, the quantity of tea drunk by the players is tantamount to the quantities of cigarettes smoked by an opposite crew of mobsters, ruffians, or killers. It is verry hard not to be wholly taken aback by the seamless prose of the excellent Miss Pym!

  2. 5 out of 5

    MsAprilVincent

    Aside from a few differences--living in the 1950s, being British, not being a teacher, being actively involved in church--Mildred Lathbury could easily be me. She's in her early 30s, she's unmarried, people keep telling her about their problems and expecting her to fix them, men think she's in love with them just because she's single, and she prefers living by herself because someone else would just mess everything up. And here's another thing that I noticed: her friends and neighbors would often Aside from a few differences--living in the 1950s, being British, not being a teacher, being actively involved in church--Mildred Lathbury could easily be me. She's in her early 30s, she's unmarried, people keep telling her about their problems and expecting her to fix them, men think she's in love with them just because she's single, and she prefers living by herself because someone else would just mess everything up. And here's another thing that I noticed: her friends and neighbors would often ask her to do things in a tone that suggested, "Oh, well, since you're single, YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO, so could you please _______ for me?" That is annoying, and very accurate. I am going to start referring to myself as an Excellent Woman. I'm going to put it on my cards.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Beverly

    I've read this many times and have both a kindle version and a paperback. Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary women leading ordinary lives. They don't have interesting, exciting jobs or adventures and their personal lives consist of doing flowers for the church or manning a booth at a church fete. This sounds horrible and tedious, but it is exactly the opposite; her books are funny and sweet and excellent, just like her women.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    This review first appeared on my blog Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books. Awhile ago, I asked for recommendations for books that take place in small villages. I'd just done a re-read of Emma and followed that up with An Accomplished Woman, and I was really enjoying the scale of the worlds and the consequent depth of observation that this allowed for- which is why I asked for more. One that came up a couple of times but hadn't made it to the top yet was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I wish that I had This review first appeared on my blog Shoulda Coulda Woulda Books. Awhile ago, I asked for recommendations for books that take place in small villages. I'd just done a re-read of Emma and followed that up with An Accomplished Woman, and I was really enjoying the scale of the worlds and the consequent depth of observation that this allowed for- which is why I asked for more. One that came up a couple of times but hadn't made it to the top yet was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I wish that I had listened to the recommenders and gotten to this sooner, because this is everything I wanted and more. Excellent Women focuses on Mildred Lethbury, a thirtyish woman living in London in the early 1950s. While this might not sound like it qualifies as a "small village" book, that would be to confuse the London of today with the London of then. As it was in the early 1800s when Emma's Highbury was a village, the various neighborhoods of the city formed small, often self-contained, communities of their own within the larger city. This was especially true in the bombed-out postwar city as people made the most of what they had and tried to put some semblance of a life back together. Mildred may have had slightly more mobility than the small town ladies of most village novels (she went further downtown to work), but this didn't affect her outlook overly much. Her world, as the book opens, is her local church, its vicar, and its crowd of "excellent women" of the title, who crowd about the church doing "good works"- her greatest excursion is her Wednesday trip to services at another church downtown whose pastor, due to the war, is still undecided, and receives new visiting priests each week. It's a comfortable, predictable life, in which Mildred does a lot of good, and has friends who care for her and a world she understands. Unfortunately for her (or fortunately depending on how you look at this story, ultimately), Mildred lives in a house with two apartments. So, in the first pages of this novel, into this comfortable life steps some new, highly unconventional downstairs neighbors, the Napiers. The Napiers have newfangled ideas (Helena is an anthropologist) and glamorous pasts (Rockingham-yup, that's his name- spent the war in Italy, and Helena did research in Africa). Their marriage is not decorous and supportive (not that Mildred would dream of eavesdropping- she just cannot choose but to overhear some things they say), it is full of yelling and conflicts. Worse, they have unconventional acquaintances, like fellow anthropologist Everard Bone, a most irritating man. Trouble also comes from another neighbor taken in at the vicarage with amiable Julian and his sister Winifred, trying to help with the national housing shortage: Mrs. Gray. There is just something one cannot quite like about her if you know what she means, and if you've ever read a book like this, you totally do. Or you will, before long. (Well done, Pym, I wanted to scratch this lady's eyes out from my sheer depth of recognition of her awfulness within pages of meeting her.) Mildred navigates these complications like the excellent woman she is of course, but things get quite upsetting. As you can see, it's all very small scale. The troubles of five or six families in a country village, to the life (more like three or four, really). But I finished it in a day, and there are lots of reasons why. First, Pym did a great job with her first-person narration. I think making Mildred, sweet, apparently dependable Mildred, an unreliable narrator, filtering events through her anxious, well-meaning mind, was a very strong choice. It humanized and gave interest to a character who could have been laughed at and satirized from the outside, Thackeray-style, super easily. Pym did poke gentle fun at her, but from the perspective of one who understands and loves this character. Occasionally it seemed like Pym could perhaps become slightly defensive of her character, which I suspect was perhaps an overidentification with her. I also understand that she was likely writing for a similar audience, much in the same manner that A Provincial Lady was (who I also loved and need to read more of), and it didn't obtrude enough to be truly bothersome. Besides, the rhythm of Mildred's quiet, determined, well-intentioned mind did the work of gathering sympathy all on its own. Which leads me to my second reason for loving this. This is yet another in a series of wonderful books about women quietly rebelling that I've been finding and reading for years, books about "extra" women, or "unwanted" women, women who are expected to bear the burdens of others, women who rebel in their own ways-not with violence or dramatic displays, but simply by preferring not to. Books like Lolly Willowes and The Awakening is what I mean- and Excellent Women is another high quality entry into this list. Mildred refuses to be the sighing spinster desperately angling for a husband, desperate for romance, that society might perceive her to be, or the eternally perky, "useful" woman- despite trying her very best to be the latter sometimes, despite occasionally wishing to be the former. Mildred is a person- the scene where she refuses a date that could possibly be romantic from a man because she assumes that he is inviting her over to cook for him (he literally calls and is like "I have some meat to be cooked", so you can forgive her), made me want to cheer, as did the scene where a man makes a romantic overture for clearly the wrong reasons and way too soon and she has none of it. I love stories about women who are secure enough to be true to themselves, and it turns out that this story, despite Mildred's struggles with the roles people assume she will perform for them, is ultimately about that. Mildred is a person, and she will set some firm (if quiet) limits about that when she can. I wish she had done it more, sooner, and louder, but don't we all wish that for ourselves and others? How often do we achieve it? Mildred does it enough to make me feel a great respect for her, enough to inspire me to hope that I might be able to do the same for myself one day. Finally, I think this was all so effective because Pym did a great job immersing the reader in her world without ever being preachy or doing a great deal of obvious world building. Like many great writers before her, she let the dialogue and thoughts and actions of her characters fill in the rest, with only minimal physical description to fill it out. Perhaps this was because she was writing for a contemporary audience who already lived in this world- but I didn't need to live there to see the colors it was painted in in spite of that, which speaks volumes of her writing. I loved the oblique, offhand references to the aftermath of the war- the church she goes to Wednesday service at is always full because half of the church is still bombed out and unrepaired, so much of the plot is about new and unlikely neighbors because people are scrambling for housing in a half-built city, people showing generosity by using their rations of special items on guests, the number of widows and single women trying to make their way, the vicar in the bombed out church missing because he had been killed in the war, the way marriages were still being affected by the war's long separation. This is a story about how the war continued to affect people for years afterward, told in the most everyday sort of way, without any sort of drama. Pym tells us only the surface, but the surface is more than enough to hint at what must underlie some of the more subtle shifts in her character's mind, where her periodic restlessness may come from, the anxiety present in some characters' behavior, and the unchanging nature of others. All in all, this book will be exactly what you'd expect. But it will be that at high quality, it will be that with unexpected sympathy, with grace and with quiet pride. And you'll remember Mildred, you'll remember her far longer than you would any of her real life number. And with that, I think Pym would be content.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kim Kaso

    I am re-reading Barbara Pym's books this summer to lift my spirits as I recover from physical injury. I find I can only take so much emotional stress before I retreat to her closely observed lives full of the quotidian routines of the women who are the backbone of the Anglican Church. Flower arranging, knitting, polishing church brasses, it is all part of the detail of their quiet lives as loss of love is accepted with resignation, spinsters find a way of "making do" on limited budgets, and the I am re-reading Barbara Pym's books this summer to lift my spirits as I recover from physical injury. I find I can only take so much emotional stress before I retreat to her closely observed lives full of the quotidian routines of the women who are the backbone of the Anglican Church. Flower arranging, knitting, polishing church brasses, it is all part of the detail of their quiet lives as loss of love is accepted with resignation, spinsters find a way of "making do" on limited budgets, and the seasons pass marked by jumble sales and church festivals. Many cups of tea are provided as life's crises are negotiated, with the occasional coffee or medicinal brandy, and one falls asleep knowing there are still quiet pockets of the world filled with excellent women.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much. So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back. Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much. So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back. Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons and lengthy intercessions. They always spoke to my mother – they had know her since she was a small girl coming to church with her own mother – and whenever something was going on, be it a coffee morning or a jumble sale, they were always there and they were always busy. When I was a small girl I thought that they were ancient, but looking back I think most of them would have been in their sixties. Years layer my mother used to visit one of those ladies when she was housebound, and I remember my mother telling me that she was always so welcoming and so appreciative. Not long after she did her nephew appeared on our doorstep with two carved elephants. My mother had mentioned in passing that she remembered her parents having a similar pair, and she had made a note that nother was to have her elephants. I’m rambling, but I’m going to come to the point now. Mildred Lathbury – the excellent woman who tells this story was so real, so utterly believable that I am quite prepared to believe that I might have been looking at her back and her hat back in the day. Mildred Lathbury was the daughter of a clergyman, and she had been brought up in a country vicarage, but when she found herself alone in the world she moved to a small flat near the Anglican church that she regularly attended. She was a stalwart of that church and had formed a close friendship with Winifred Mallory. She was the vicar’s sister and, as both sister and brother were ummarried, they lived together in the vicarage. It had been suggested that Mildred would be an excellent wife for Julian Mallory … New arrivals heralded change. First new neighbours moved into the flat below Mildred’s. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, arrived first, and Mildred was taken aback when Helena spoke to her freely and frankly, when she announced that she didn’t go to church, when she said that she didn’t believe in housework. Her husband, Rockingham had just come out of the navy and was on his way home from Italy. Mildred wasn’t sure if she liked Helena but she was intrigued by her, and by new possibilities. And then the Mallory’s decided to let a room. Allegra Grey was a clergyman’s widow and she seemed to be the ideal person to share the vicarage. She wasn’t, and some worked that out more quickly than others. There was much speculation, and a good deal of gossiping Mildred’s relationship with the Napiers was lovely to watch. She was flattered to be asked for help and advice, and she came to realise that marriage was far, far more complicated than she had realised. And that she was rather more involved than she really wanted to be. Events at the vicarage offered interesting parallels and contrasts. Church events provided a wonderful backdrop. And I haven’t even mentioned Everest Bone … Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely. Mildred’s voice rang completely true, and I did like her. She was a genuinely nice woman, practical intelligent, and dependable. She didn’t think marriage was the answer to everything, she liked having her independence and her own space, but she did rather like the idea of being married, of having a companion in life. And now I have just one more word – excellent!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I am honestly not sure what to make of this book. I initially discovered this book (and author) through a random Amazon-crawl, where I assume it was recommended to me based on some of my other highly-rated books. I vaguely remember reading that Excellent Women was satirical, funny, biting, etc., and there were several comparisons to Jane Austen. I don't share the crush that virtually all well-educated white girls seem to have for Jane Austen (despite being a well-educated white girl myself), but I am honestly not sure what to make of this book. I initially discovered this book (and author) through a random Amazon-crawl, where I assume it was recommended to me based on some of my other highly-rated books. I vaguely remember reading that Excellent Women was satirical, funny, biting, etc., and there were several comparisons to Jane Austen. I don't share the crush that virtually all well-educated white girls seem to have for Jane Austen (despite being a well-educated white girl myself), but I did enjoy Sense and Sensibility well enough for me to take a second look at any author who's compared to Austen. The main character of Excellent Women is a single 30-year-old woman named Mildred who lives in London in the 1950s. This being the '50s, and Mildred being 30 already, she is considered to have entered the spinster stage and is treated very patronizingly by everyone around her, as though she had suddenly gone mad and started collecting vast amounts of cats. The plot of the book describes her very provincial and narrow life, which consists of making tea, eating really sad lunches of lettuce and cheese, and interfering with/getting dragged into other people's lives and helping to sort out their problems. There are a few witty, clever lines in this book, but any pleasure they might have provided is withheld since they almost seem to be delivered unconsciously, as though Mildred could never imagine herself as someone who ever says anything funny. In fact, the moments that were supposed to be funny had a very sad quality to me, as though the author were rubbing it in our faces how miserable the main character was, but somehow also expecting us to be a sport and laugh anyway. I kept thinking, 'Oh, Mildred seems unassuming, but this is where she's about to assert herself and become a real, three-dimensional person!' But it never happened. Instead of being redeemed, she just slipped slowly and sadly into her permanent role as a doormat and sounding-board for other people, and her individuality was lost in a bland mist of apathy and tea-making. There's one scene where Mildred is at a church committee meeting and one of the women leading the meeting starts making tea for everyone. Mildred, who has already consumed about four cups of tea that day, feebly suggests that perhaps they don't need tea for this meeting. Here's how that scene continues: "...she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, 'Do we need tea?' she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night." I recognize that this scene has a big 'laugh here' sign on it, but I just found Mildred's complete acquiescence and sheepishness to be depressing. There is the seed of social commentary in this book – after all, Mildred does get weary of constantly meeting everyone's demands and expectations towards the end of the book, and seems on the verge of telling everyone off – but instead of taking that social commentary to its logical conclusion by having Mildred rebel, however mildly, Pym takes the alternate route of having Mildred sink into resignation and acceptance of her pathetic lot in life. In fact, the book ends with her getting roped into doing some clerical work for a pompous scholar who's a friend of hers – without pay, of course. The presentation of women in this book is really unsettling (as it often is in Jane Austen's books, too). Mildred (who we're presumably meant to identify with?) is a fussy, boring, spineless drone, and the foil to Mildred is a woman named Helena, who is an anthropologist. Helena is described as being passionately interested in her work and committed to her field of study. She is also described as being an awful housewife who leaves dishes unwashed, rooms untidied, and meals unprepared. In the author's estimation, you can either be an intellectual or a good wife, but not both; smart or feminine, but not both; interesting or good, but not both. There are no other options. There are also only two options in terms of virtue or goodness: attending church every single day or being an atheist. Mildred attends church every day (sometimes several times a day, it seems – she goes to church the way some people now watch TV), has an unquestioning obedience to tradition and authority, and has a simpering, saccharine view of spirituality, while Helena, the anthropologist, is not religious at all, and is portrayed as a crass philistine with no compassion or virtue. Again, Pym expects us to believe that these two stereotypes are the only options when choosing how to live a moral life. I realize that comedy as a genre trades in stereotypes all the time – it's the universal aspects of human experience that make us laugh in recognition and delight – but the stereotypes in this book seemed very confining, un-funny, and almost politically aggressive, as though Pym were daring any of her readers to be so arrogant as to claim that they fit into neither category. It's possible that Pym was being more clever than I'm giving her credit for, and was calling attention to how the 1950s warped women's lives as a way of justifying and explaining the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s. But her negative portrayal of Helena – who could have represented 'the smart, liberated woman of the future' in a positive way – indicates to me that Pym wasn't really thinking along those lines. Overall, not nearly the snarky, witty romp I was promised.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Melindam

    “...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.” “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.” Love Barbara Pym's books, but it's so hard to tell “...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.” “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.” Love Barbara Pym's books, but it's so hard to tell why. Maybe because she had the courage or was it the lack of imagination or an excellent judgement of character and human nature in general to be able to write about the Mundane, the Humdrum, the Prosaic in a way that touches the heart & stays with you.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Malia

    Just what I was looking for! This is charming, witty and introduced me to the wonderfully observant Mildred Lathbury. My first book by Pym, but not my last! Find more reviews and bookish fun at http://www.princessandpen.com

  10. 5 out of 5

    Magrat Ajostiernos

    Mildred me ha conquistado! :D

  11. 4 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    I fear I may have been a little severe in my assessment of Ms Pym so, as I'm sure her legions of fans will be delighted to hear, I sat myself out on the terrace yesterday afternoon and read this one straight through, cover to cover, in 5 hours. Quartet in Autumn was driech: dull sad people leading sad dull lives. This one was at least subtly humorous, but, weirdly enough, hardly less depressing for a' that. The humour In post-WW2 Britain you still have to register with the butcher, and I fear I may have been a little severe in my assessment of Ms Pym so, as I'm sure her legions of fans will be delighted to hear, I sat myself out on the terrace yesterday afternoon and read this one straight through, cover to cover, in 5 hours. Quartet in Autumn was driech: dull sad people leading sad dull lives. This one was at least subtly humorous, but, weirdly enough, hardly less depressing for a' that. The humour In post-WW2 Britain you still have to register with the butcher, and (pre-Elizabeth David) spaghetti is something that requires a lesson in how to twist it round the fork from a serviceman who was posted in Italy so knows about their exotic cuisine. Yet our heroine has a copy of Chinese Cookery at her bedside, to send her back to sleep when she is woken in the small hours. I thought that was funny. (Actually, there is an inordinate obsession with food and its embarrassments, unsurprising I suppose as it was still rationed. Breakfast, lunch, then tea in the afternoon, with bread and butter, maybe even jam, and always the question of cake - is there cake? Or not? How old is it? And then supper not much later, and inviting people in for coffee - in the evening? With biscuits. Or cake. If there is any, that is.) Mostly the humour consists of the kind of smoothly unobtrusive irony that can easily get overlooked: that spaghetti expert was a Naval Officer, new to this neighbourhood of London. The vicar (Julian) wonders if he and his wife will attend church, for 'They that go down to the sea in ships: and occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord: and His Wonders in the deep,' Julian said, half to himself. I did not like to spoil the beauty of the words by pointing out that Rockingham Napier had spent most of his service arranging the Admiral's social life. Of course he may have seen the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. Rockingham Napier - now there's a preposterous name. And our heroine: Mildred. Of course! Mild-mannered Mildred, everybody's doormat. Allegra Gray - can't you just guess that she is not to be trusted? And indeed, like the fat ladies on the saucy postcards that put in a bijou appearance when Mild Mildred takes a Devonshire holiday, all the characters here are overdrawn, just enough to be self-conscious caricatures of themselves. There's a nod nod wink wink that goes with these 'excellent women', the mainstay of the church jumble sale and protectors of hapless men, all of whom seem to be prey to the other kind of women, not the excellent ones but the feckless alluring ones. The Allegras rather than the Mildreds of this world. So, realistic there then. No cheaply plotted romantic happy end. But Mildred is busier, and happier than she was at the beginning, so it ends well does it not? A Comedy then, if not a Romantic Comedy. Depressing for a'that 'The rejected ones'. That's how Mildred sees herself and the other jumble sale stalwarts and that's where it stops being funny. The women who have a career don't seem any better off, battling over whether you have to wear a hat in church, I ask you. (view spoiler)[Mind you, have we moved far since then? See present battle over whether a working woman has to wear high heels. (hide spoiler)] And those mind-boggling attitudes: at just over thirty (!) you are set in your ways, you have nothing to look forward to but more of the same. A lofty concern with whether people are not just respectable, but worthy. What, pray, do you have to do to qualify as worthy? What does that even mean, worthy? Hollow lives.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    I did not like this book. I found it a total bore from start to finish. I didn't laugh once. It is supposed to have satirical humor. I found no humor at all. The book is about a single woman, Mildred Lathbury. She is in her thirties. She is living in London near Victoria Station in the years following the Second World War. History is scarcely referred to other than mention of food rationing, a lack of commodities and a bombed building or two. Her days consist of eating - meals and tea - over and I did not like this book. I found it a total bore from start to finish. I didn't laugh once. It is supposed to have satirical humor. I found no humor at all. The book is about a single woman, Mildred Lathbury. She is in her thirties. She is living in London near Victoria Station in the years following the Second World War. History is scarcely referred to other than mention of food rationing, a lack of commodities and a bombed building or two. Her days consist of eating - meals and tea - over and over again. How one can eat a meal and go an hour later to tea and an hour later to the next meal is beyond me. If not sipping tea or munching on bread and jam, often in the company of a friend, she is arranging a church jumble sale, a church bazaar or some other church function. Her father had been a clergyman. Both mother and father are now dead. Other than these things she is constantly, constantly helping her acquaintances, to the extent of total self-effacement! Or …..wondering about love. Is she happy? No. And so life continues. My God, why doesn't she put her foot down? Setting no limits, doing everything for everybody, she is used by all. A person must set limits, don't you think? No, women do not have to get married, but they do have to do something of interest with their lives. Ordinary lives are fine as long as they give one a modicum of self-fulfillment, and I do not believe Mildred Lathbury comes near to any such feeling. This is how I see the book. You may see it differently. The Hachette audiobook is said to be narrated by Jonathan Keeble, but that is wrong; he only reads the two introductions. Don't worry, they don't say very much; only very general information about the author's writing is set forth. It is Jerry Halligan who reads the story. She reads at a good pace and with appropriate intonations for the story's diverse characters. The narration is fine. This book annoyed me. If you let yourself be stepped on, whose fault is that?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Idarah

    Although this wasn't a dashing romantic tale like Jane Eyre or even Pride and Prejudice I thought it was great. It was slow in some areas, but I still found it rich and thrilling. Everyday life and excursions are related with humor and depth. Church gossip and those "delicate" marital concerns that can arise when laundry is aired publicly, were so hilarious to watch as an outsider along with the protagonist. I found it a bit feminist as well...in the sense that not all women need to be married to Although this wasn't a dashing romantic tale like Jane Eyre or even Pride and Prejudice I thought it was great. It was slow in some areas, but I still found it rich and thrilling. Everyday life and excursions are related with humor and depth. Church gossip and those "delicate" marital concerns that can arise when laundry is aired publicly, were so hilarious to watch as an outsider along with the protagonist. I found it a bit feminist as well...in the sense that not all women need to be married to justify their womanhood. And this idea was rather drastic for 1950s London. Pym was ahead of her time, without needing to fill the pages inbetween with sex. I also learned some useful life lessons: how to "properly" clean one's kitchen, how to prepare a fine pot of tea, and that meddling (when for altruistic purposes) isn't always wrong. "Men are not nearly so helpless and pathetic as we sometimes like to imagine them, and on the whole they run their lives better than we do ours." "Why is it that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all..."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Helle

    Stick on the kettle, put up your feet and settle into your favourite armchair with this cosy, post-WW II English novel. Barbara Pym’s world is one of brown-clad spinsters, nuns on bicycles and vicars who live with their sisters. The foreword in my beautiful Virago Modern Classics edition was written by Alexander McCall Smith, and I now see where he got much of his inspiration for his 44 Scotland Street series. The book is the literary equivalent of an English (pre-war) village with its small Stick on the kettle, put up your feet and settle into your favourite armchair with this cosy, post-WW II English novel. Barbara Pym’s world is one of brown-clad spinsters, nuns on bicycles and vicars who live with their sisters. The foreword in my beautiful Virago Modern Classics edition was written by Alexander McCall Smith, and I now see where he got much of his inspiration for his 44 Scotland Street series. The book is the literary equivalent of an English (pre-war) village with its small conflicts, potential marriages, people moving in, people moving out. It could be St. Mary Mead but is actually a London suburb back when those were practically still separate villages. It reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water, though with slightly less religious fervour. Some of Pym’s characterizations and scenes convinced me that J.K. Rowling has read Barbara Pym (one of Elizabeth Goudge’s books was Rowling’s favourite as a child so I see a link). And consider these book titles and tell me they don’t remind you of some of the ones Harry et. al. read: Wild Beasts and Their Ways and Five Years with the Congo Cannibals. A lot of the time the irony is so gentle that it nearly slipped by without my noticing: He suddenly smiled and I remembered my Lenten resolution to try to like him. It was getting a little easier but I felt that at any moment I might have a setback. …and there was less irony that I had expected considering that Barbara Pym is sometimes compared to Jane Austen, which I could only see in one or two places, such as in the following: In the train we read the school magazine, taking a secret pleasure in belittling those of the Old Girls who had done well and rejoicing over those who had failed to fulfil their early promise. A quietly enjoyable novel, if perhaps at times a bit too quiet for me, but a novel which, as I recently realized, has nonetheless managed to be put on the 1001 books-to-read-before-you-die list.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Claire Fuller

    Why didn't any of you shout louder about reading Barbara Pym? I can't believe I'm nearly 50 and I've only just got round to reading her, because everything was perfect and lovely and wonderful about this book. So beautifully English. An 'ordinary' single woman, Mildred, in the 1950s, goes to church, goes on holiday with her old school friend, drinks an awful lot of tea, helps out in a charity for gentlewomen who have fallen on hard times, has another cup of tea with some slightly stale cake, Why didn't any of you shout louder about reading Barbara Pym? I can't believe I'm nearly 50 and I've only just got round to reading her, because everything was perfect and lovely and wonderful about this book. So beautifully English. An 'ordinary' single woman, Mildred, in the 1950s, goes to church, goes on holiday with her old school friend, drinks an awful lot of tea, helps out in a charity for gentlewomen who have fallen on hard times, has another cup of tea with some slightly stale cake, denies that she was ever in love with the vicar, more tea...and then a glamorous couple move into the flat below her. Some things change, but not really much - even more tea is drunk, but also a bit of brandy. It is witty and sharp, and almost sad. Mildred is wonderful. If you've ever read any Barbara Comyns, it's a bit like her books, but not as surreal. Highly recommended. I shall be going out shortly for tea and some more books by Barbara Pym. www.clairefuller.co.uk

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    A most excellent book! Full of lots of humor and thoughtfulness--I agree that it's a bit Jane Austen-esque. However, I am not sure that the overall theme is quite so optimistic as Austen's works. I would be very interested to hear from others who have read this book to find out what they think. Did Mildred find a fulfilling life? What was Pym's view of "excellent women"--were they neglected victims or silent heroes? I'm looking forward to reading more of Pym's work. Highly recommended!!!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Katie Lumsden

    I really enjoyed this. It's like Jane Austen but set in the 1950s - very witty, but at times tinged with sadness.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    {4.5} Mildred is an "excellent woman," always available to make tea, wash up and listen to the troubles of others. I read this novel at just the right time in my life to appreciate it. (I did try to read Pym a couple decades ago and found her bland and dull.) I rooted for Mildred through her self-doubt and guilt and loved her wry humor and quizzical observations. I miss her already!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    Just excellent! This cores on ordinary people in an era that most today would consider the most "ill" and mundane, but that I consider the most intensely insightful. Also one of the most individual despite being labeled the opposite. And full boat wide with positive energy and optimistic possibilities. For sure! I remember the adults then. Heroes without having to advertise their onus abounded. And we do have some excellent women here. With expertise in all the womanly excelling talents and Just excellent! This cores on ordinary people in an era that most today would consider the most "ill" and mundane, but that I consider the most intensely insightful. Also one of the most individual despite being labeled the opposite. And full boat wide with positive energy and optimistic possibilities. For sure! I remember the adults then. Heroes without having to advertise their onus abounded. And we do have some excellent women here. With expertise in all the womanly excelling talents and beyond. Quite beyond. Now if only you didn't need to share a bathroom with virtual strangers! Pym is truly a treasure that I have to dig deep within very soon. The understated intensely of "alive" is just vibrant in her writing. You KNOW that her prime Mildred is never overlooking a detail or nuance, unless she wants to do so for her own supposing habits. Loved, loved the ending. Possibilities!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Had high hopes for my first Barbara Pym book, but unfortunately not for me.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Paula

    Warm, witty and wonderful. Pym gives us glimpses of human nature with all its flaws, but with such sympathy that we cannot help but love her characters. The best novels help us to develop our empathy, or what Eliot called "fellow-feeling," toward mankind. Such books teach us to be as forgiving of the flaws of the characters as we are of our own flaws, and so learn empathy toward real people. This is one of those rare books. It presents glimpses of humanity so close to us that we will smile in Warm, witty and wonderful. Pym gives us glimpses of human nature with all its flaws, but with such sympathy that we cannot help but love her characters. The best novels help us to develop our empathy, or what Eliot called "fellow-feeling," toward mankind. Such books teach us to be as forgiving of the flaws of the characters as we are of our own flaws, and so learn empathy toward real people. This is one of those rare books. It presents glimpses of humanity so close to us that we will smile in recognition of the face in the mirror. I have read this book several times, and find that it never gets old. Pym gives us romance with all of its false starts, hesitancies and doubts still intact, yet leaves us feeling happy in the end that all works out for the best. Literature really doesn't get any better than this.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Cphe

    A gentler story but not without a few home truths along the way. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster who becomes caught up in the trials and tribulations of her married neighbours and others in her church circle......she is viewed by these characters as an "excellent woman". However Mildred is neither staid nor dull, she is intelligent and compassionate and possesses a wry sense of humour. It's through Mildred's observations and commentary that we get a glimpse into the social mores of the times, life A gentler story but not without a few home truths along the way. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster who becomes caught up in the trials and tribulations of her married neighbours and others in her church circle......she is viewed by these characters as an "excellent woman". However Mildred is neither staid nor dull, she is intelligent and compassionate and possesses a wry sense of humour. It's through Mildred's observations and commentary that we get a glimpse into the social mores of the times, life in London during the 1950's. Haven't read the author before but I like her style. I didn't view this as a comedy or overly humorous, the characterisation was the strength of the novel.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Ooh --I like Barbara Pym! Her writing style is deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable. Mildred is an unattached woman of a certain age, and in the society of this time and place, the role of such excellent women seems to be to make themselves available for everyone else. In the course of her hum-drum life being upset by the appearance of some volatile newcomers to the neighborhood, Mildred begins to question society's expectations. “Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I Ooh --I like Barbara Pym! Her writing style is deceptively simple, and thoroughly enjoyable. Mildred is an unattached woman of a certain age, and in the society of this time and place, the role of such excellent women seems to be to make themselves available for everyone else. In the course of her hum-drum life being upset by the appearance of some volatile newcomers to the neighborhood, Mildred begins to question society's expectations. “Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? “'Oh, but Byron was such a splendid romantic person,’ said Winifred, ‘and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ ‘Is it really?’ I asked, still determined that I would not be forced to admire Mrs. Gray. ‘Doesn’t one look for other qualities in people?’” I enjoyed spending time with Mildred. She’s witty and ironically self-deprecating. While hoping for something more, she accepts her role with a sort of eye to the absurdity of it all. She looks at the lives of people she is supposed to want to be like, and tells us what she sees. In the end, we realize she has more going for her than the rest of them put together.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mir

    As soon as I started this I realized that I had in fact read it before, probably over a decade ago. That's all right, one doesn't read Pym for the plot but for her effective, understated writing and excellent characterization. However, it does make me wonder whether I actually read Less Than Angels, because I don't recall reading more than three novels by Pym. I'm sure about Some Tame Gazelle and No Fond Return of Love because I read those post-Goodreads.

  25. 5 out of 5

    ✨Susan✨

    This was a strange read, it's a lot to do about nothing. It was just a step into the everyday lives of a group of people that are connected by geography. I almost quit reading it several times but curiosity about the characters pulled me back in. A clean cozy with good narration.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Roger Brunyate

    Small Lives I read this for a two-family book club. Despite coming from a totally different background himself, the other husband has a penchant for selecting smallish books about people living somewhat in the shadows, frequently with a religious connection, and often British. And so it is with this novel from 1952 by Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her thirties, lives in an apartment with shared bathroom in an unfashionable part of London. In the mornings, she works in an Small Lives I read this for a two-family book club. Despite coming from a totally different background himself, the other husband has a penchant for selecting smallish books about people living somewhat in the shadows, frequently with a religious connection, and often British. And so it is with this novel from 1952 by Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her thirties, lives in an apartment with shared bathroom in an unfashionable part of London. In the mornings, she works in an agency for Distressed Gentlewomen. The afternoons she spends on good works, mostly in connection with St. Mary's, the local church of the High Anglican persuasion, where communion is called mass and sanctified with incense. She is one of those "excellent women" who are always ready to make a cup of tea or help out at a jumble sale. She is, after all, a vicar's daughter. Though told in the third person, we see the action very much through Mildred's eyes. Apparently quite content with her single state, she resents others taking her for granted. She makes herself useful, but prefers to do so on her own terms. She also has feelings. When a married couple moves in next door (thus sharing the same bathroom), and she discovers that all is not well between them, she struggles with her attraction to the dashing husband. When Father Julian Mallory, the priest of St. Mary's and a good friend, gets involved with a clergyman's widow that he and his sister take in as a lodger in the rectory, she has mixed feelings; though free to marry, unlike his Roman counterparts, she had always assumed that Father Mallory had embraced an earnest celibacy. Over the quite short novel, a lot of moderately dramatic things will happen to people Mildred knows, leaving her to serve as go-between, pick up the pieces, supervise the movers after the occupants have gone, and make those cups of tea. But we begin to suspect that the traffic will always go around Mildred, leaving her stranded on her island in the middle of life's road. The miracle is that Barbara Pym does this as well as she does, that we never quite lose sympathy with Mildred, and that the book remains a comedy, though a sad one. To write a novel around a character whose life is limited by her own compliance, and not to have it shrink into invisibility, is quite a feat. One reason, perhaps, is that we come to see the lives of those to whom things do happen as nonetheless being as small as Mildred's own if not smaller, at least in spirit. But then I think of other female British authors whom Pym reminds me of, and she fades slightly in the comparison. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, also paints limited lives, but on a larger canvas and in more acid colors. Several of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels feature single women, but they tend to be more professional and independent. Many of Anita Brookner's heroines might be Mildreds a decade or so on, but they belong to a more sexually independent age. What makes Pym special is the coziness of her niche. But small lives tend to make small novels, though in this case a charming one.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book - my first Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathbury is an "excellent woman" - 30's, single, capable, involved in the church, living alone in post war London. As such, she is taken for granted on every page. Do you need someone to work a jumble sale? Are you having a fight with your husband and need someone to write a note to him? Did you move out of the house and you need someone to meet and manage the moving company? Do you have a chicken at home and need someone to cook it? I thoroughly enjoyed this book - my first Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathbury is an "excellent woman" - 30's, single, capable, involved in the church, living alone in post war London. As such, she is taken for granted on every page. Do you need someone to work a jumble sale? Are you having a fight with your husband and need someone to write a note to him? Did you move out of the house and you need someone to meet and manage the moving company? Do you have a chicken at home and need someone to cook it? The list goes on and on and on. And of course, an excellent woman MUST be in want of a husband. MIldred is assumed to be in love with every man she meets no matter how much she protests (which is quite funny when the clergyman becomes engaged and Mildred is battling condolences from all sides.) There seem to be a lot of comparisons to Austen but I don't really agree. While they both write about the quiet domestication of everyday life, Austen ultimately ends with the realization of true love and marriage. There is no such goal or outcome here. Pym exposes the foibles of the excellent women as well as those who impose on them with humor and sympathy. (Considering 5 stars but not sure if I'm ready to commit to the first 5 star rating of the year...which is silly, I know....)

  28. 5 out of 5

    Wyndy

    3.5 stars. Excellent women, in Barbara Pym’s world at least, are the “observers of life”, the reliable, sensible, polite, supportive, churchgoing, community-minded, UNMARRIED ladies generally taken for granted by men and often called “dear.” Frankly, if you ask me, these London ladies need to trade their insane amounts of tea for three fingers of Evan Williams now and again. They all need to let their hair down a little. Mildred Lathbury is the daughter of “an old country clergyman.” She’s 3.5 stars. Excellent women, in Barbara Pym’s world at least, are the “observers of life”, the reliable, sensible, polite, supportive, churchgoing, community-minded, UNMARRIED ladies generally taken for granted by men and often called “dear.” Frankly, if you ask me, these London ladies need to trade their insane amounts of tea for three fingers of Evan Williams now and again. They all need to let their hair down a little. Mildred Lathbury is the daughter of “an old country clergyman.” She’s thirty-something and unmarried, working part time at the Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen and actively involved in the many activities of her local church. She has a few close friends - Dora from her girls school days, and local vicar Julian Malory and his spinster sister Winifred. She wears a sensible brown coat, reads cookbooks before bed, and likes living alone. Her comfortable, predictable life among the unmarried takes a complicated turn when Rockingham and Helena Napier move in to the flat beneath her. Rocky is debonair and attentive, a Navy officer recently returned from duty in Italy; Helena is absorbed in her work as an anthropologist and less than happy with her marriage to Rocky. And Helena has a “friend” - fellow anthropologist Everard Bone. If this wasn’t enough to upset the teacart for Mildred, attractive, unmarried Vicar Julian has letted the top floor of his home to an attractive widow named Allegra Gray and has been spied holding hands with her - IN PUBLIC. More fuel for the gossip mongers, and more “duty” for Mildred as she becomes the neighborhood confidante. ‘Delightful’ and ‘charming’ are two words I rarely use in my reviews, but they fit this book to a ‘tea’ - light but not fluffy, witty but not silly, and a much-needed break for me after some recent heavy reads. This is my first novel by Miss Pym, but she has earned a spot on my go-to relaxing author list. 3.5 very good stars for her penetrating depictions of ordinary lives and for highlighting the absurdity and audacity of Certain People, rounded down because the wishy-washy characters and endless tea-making became “tea”dious after a while 😉

  29. 4 out of 5

    Lynda

    A typically chatty tale from Barbara Pym. Lives of quiet desperation is always a phrase that swims around in my mind when I read her novels. Those bedsit spinsters eating tins of baked beans or lettuce and a bit of tomato with bread and butter for tea. But perhaps Mildred Lathbury is something more than that for though she does live her life vicariously in the service of others Pym allow her to have rather a good time in the process, she is literally wined and dined by all the male protagonists A typically chatty tale from Barbara Pym. Lives of quiet desperation is always a phrase that swims around in my mind when I read her novels. Those bedsit spinsters eating tins of baked beans or lettuce and a bit of tomato with bread and butter for tea. But perhaps Mildred Lathbury is something more than that for though she does live her life vicariously in the service of others Pym allow her to have rather a good time in the process, she is literally wined and dined by all the male protagonists and is in her own way rather emancipated and unpredictable, much more so than the wimpy Winifred or the jolly Dora. Mildred is an expert in the small business of daily life and like many a bit player is essential to the onward movement of the plot. Highly recommended

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    This series of set pieces oozes austerity. Anglicans endure the post-war shortages with a sober humor and allow their imaginations to whimsy while mantaining hopes for the future. The protagonist shuffles between a small circle of characters, sips a great deal of tea, ponders the limits of her education, her wit, and her looks. There are disputes and relationships dissolve, but this isn't an Iris Murdoch parlor exercise. Feelings may blush and pale. There are no scars here. That was the war, This series of set pieces oozes austerity. Anglicans endure the post-war shortages with a sober humor and allow their imaginations to whimsy while mantaining hopes for the future. The protagonist shuffles between a small circle of characters, sips a great deal of tea, ponders the limits of her education, her wit, and her looks. There are disputes and relationships dissolve, but this isn't an Iris Murdoch parlor exercise. Feelings may blush and pale. There are no scars here. That was the war, darling. This would like merit 3.5 stars but I did find the characters clever and the struggles for clarity refreshing.

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