Excellent Women (1952)

by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman — balanced, sensible, always available to help. "You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish," her friend Winifred says. A thirtysomething alone in the world — her clergyman father and mother are dead — Mildred leads a quiet life revolving around her High Anglican parish; a part-time job at the Society for the Care of Aged Gentlewomen; and a few friends, including Father Julian Malory, Winifred's brother.

Some newness enters Mildred's well-regulated life in the form of a modern couple, Helena and Rocky Napier, who move into the flat below hers, and a parish newcomer, Allegra Gray, a widow who has her sights on Father Julian. Excellent woman that she is, Mildred is there to help Rocky and Helena repair their ruptured marriage and to help Julian and Winifred weather the repercussions from Julian's ill-chosen engagement. Mildred is "exhausted with bearing other people's burdens," but, she tells herself, "I must not allow myself to have feelings." Excellent women don't have feelings. Excellent women are observers, not participants.

And excellent women are not for marrying. But Helena's anthropologist friend Everard Bone seems interested in Mildred, though it's not clear whether he's interested in romance or in having a proofreader and indexer for his book. If Mildred never becomes first in anyone's life, is it sad? She may be taken advantage of in her circle and largely unnoticed outside of it, but the world would be a better place with more salt-of-the-earth folks like her. Moreover, she's not unhappy being an excellent woman. Nor is any reader likely to be unhappy about spending time with this witty and insightful book.


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