First sentence: "Ah, you ladies! Always on the spot when there's something happening!"
Reflections: Mildred Lathbury is a single, 30-something daughter of a clergyman living in London during the 1950s. She considers herself "capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life -- birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather ..." Mildred works part-time caring for "aged gentlewomen," and spends the rest of her day doing good works with similar "excellent women" like herselves, associated with her local church. She is quietly proud of her ability to live independently, and there is a poignancy in her single lifestyle. In Mildred's point of view, excellent women are "are not for marrying":
"it was not excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up."
The novel's plot revolves around several characters in Mildred's life including Helena and Rocky Napier, a couple who live in the flat below Mildred; Everard Bone, an anthropologist; Julian Malory, the local vicar; and Allegra Gray, a woman who moves to the area and wins Julian's heart. Through these characters Barbara Pym portrays English suburban life, with a hearty dose of irony. Her clever turns of phrase poke fun at English norms and customs, and at the everyday doings of people, everywhere:
- After politely offering to help with a bit of sewing: "I was a little dismayed, as we often are when our offers of help are taken at their face value, and I set to work rather grimly, especially as Mrs. Gray herself was not doing anything at all."
- On being asked to do someting intolerable, Mildred reacts: "The room suddenly seemed very hot and I saw Mrs. Gray's face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed, her skin a smooth apricot colour"
- Describing the arrival of furniture movers: "There were three of them, two cheerful and strong-looking, and the third, paerhaps as befitted his position as foreman, wizened and melancholy and apparently incapable of carrying anything at all."
Reading Excellent Women was an enjoyable immersion in English culture. I know I will be visiting Pym's world again and again. ( )