Questions and Topics for Discussion
Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is a novel about a woman named Mildred Lathbury who is living in London in the 1950s. A self-proclaimed spinster, virtuous almost to a fault, intelligent, and entirely without family, Mildred is alone and content to be so. As the story begins, she is leading a quiet life of churchgoing and part-time charity work, with the Malorys—Julian, a pastor and single man, and his frazzled, sweet sister, Winifred—as her dearest friends.
However, as Mildred herself notes, “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” (p. 5). And so upon her too-comfortable existence enter a host of unsettling and decidedly unvirtuous characters: the Napiers—Helena and Rockingham—a glamorous and unconventional couple who become Mildred’s housemates; Allegra Gray, the calculating widow who destabilizes Mildred’s relationship with the Malorys; and Everard Bone, the aloof anthropologist who befriends Mildred against all of her expectations.
The Napiers’ marriage is on the rocks, due to Helena’s fierce dedication to her anthropological fieldwork and to dashing Rockingham’s effortless romancing of every woman he encounters. As their go-between and confidant, Mildred suddenly finds herself swept into their milieu of romantic drama and self-important science. Two love triangles develop: between the Napiers and Everard Bone, and between Allegra Gray, Julian Malory, and, to her surprise, Mildred herself. Even as she expresses her intent to preserve her independence, a number of potential suitors present themselves. The more Mildred tries to extricate herself, the more involved she becomes, as each of her friends depends on her to sort out the unflattering messes they make for themselves.
Yet behind her plain and patient facade, capable Mildred turns out to be a more ruthless social observer than even the anthropologists whose job it is to “study man.” Excellent Women is a romantic comedy that makes the decidedly unromantic suggestion that its narrator might be happiest alone. Mildred’s wit and independence subvert the stereotype that “excellent women” are dull. Set against the backdrop of postwar London, a city sorting through the disruptions of wartime bombing, the beginnings of feminism, and the end of colonialism, the novel offers effortless social critique that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
ABOUT BARBARA PYM
English novelist Barbara Pym was born in 1913 in Shropshire. She was educated at Oxford and for many years worked at the African Institute in London. She enjoyed initial success in her writing career but then for over a decade was unable to find a publisher for her novels. After being called “the most underrated writer of the century” by Philip Larkin, there was a resurgence of critical and popular interest in her work in the final years of her life. She published six novels between 1950 and 1961, including Excellent Women in 1952, and four additional works after 1977. Among these later works is Quartet in Autumn, which was nominated for the Booker Prize. Pym died in 1980 at her home in Oxfordshire.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSTry to define the “excellent women” of the novel’s title. What are their habits and character traits? How do others view them, and what is their role in society? Consider whether Mildred herself views herself as an excellent woman, both at the beginning and the end of the novel.
As a single woman without family, Mildred is perceived to be always available to others. Nearly every character—from the Napiers to the Malorys to Everard Bone—comes to Mildred for help and advice. What aspects of Mildred’s personality make her seem dependable, as someone to rely on for help? Do you think she actually helps those who come to her? How does she feel about the role that is thrust upon her?
Excellent Women is firmly rooted in a specific place and time. What can you learn about England in the 1950s from this novel? Think about the war in the then-recent past—the specter of the bombed-out church that Mildred and Everard attend, for example—and the changing position of women. How would you describe the city and the lives of Londoners? Is London a place of opportunity or a metropolis haunted by history? What in particular does it offer to Mildred that another place might not?
Women and their relationship to work is a theme throughout the novel. Helena Napier, for example, struggles to balance her passion for fieldwork with her marital duties, while Mildred herself tries to maintain meaningful part-time work alongside solitude. How do their lives compare to the lifestyles of single women in their thirties today? Which of their problems continue to vex contemporary working women?
The jumble sales at All Souls are a preoccupation for many of the women who fit Mildred’s description in the book. Who buys clothing and knickknacks at such events, and what do the volunteer organizers enjoy or despise about participating in the sales? What might these bazaars of used things symbolize, consciously or unconsciously, for these characters or for Barbara Pym?
Though Mildred professes that she is satisfied with her life, she is also tempted by the options she sees other women taking. Think of the women she envies and the women she pities. What possible futures do you think are available to her in her era? In ours? Return to places in the novel in which she contemplates her fate. What does she fear she might become?
Consider the type of work that Mildred does, the church activities as well as her job with the impoverished gentlewomen’s group. Do these still exist as common occupations in the place that you come from? Who is involved in them? Are there new volunteer or religious or NGO positions that have replaced the former charity and part-time work of “excellent women”?
Helena and Everard are anthropologists—students of human societies. How perceptive are they about their own lives and society? Compare their skills to Mildred’s own social acuity. What does Pym suggest about the gulf between science and lived reality? Do you think her depiction of anthropology is merely satirical, or does she suggest that there might be something to gain from such study? What does Mildred think?
Many people seem to pity Mildred for being unmarried, and over the course of the novel more than one suitor presents himself to her. What does Mildred think of the possibility of marriage? Think over various scenes in the novel when she considers married life, its preoccupations and obligations. What in her life would change if she were no longer single? Does Mildred want to be married, or are there things she values more?
Mildred lives alone, as do many of the minor characters in the novel, including Dora, William, and Everard Bone. What do these characters gain by living alone, and what do they lose? Who is happy with his or her situation, and who seeks to change it? What do you think the author’s attitude is toward these characters? What is yours?
At the end of the novel, Pym hints at changes in Mildred’s life while being ambiguous about what exactly those changes might be. What do you predict for her? What do you think would make her happiest or most fulfilled? What would be the traditional happy ending?
Why does Mildred insist that she is nothing like the gothic heroine Jane Eyre? What does this suggest about her modesty or her self-regard? Do you think she might be termed a heroine, even if an untraditional one? What about her is heroic? What about her story is an adventure, a quest, or a journey?