Saturday 11 April 2020

Excellent Women | Barbara Pym #ComfortRead

I'm struggling to write reviews at the moment (my Covid Chronicles posts are the writing exception), but I am slowly reading through a few books. One that I've just finished is Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym. It was her very first book published in 1950. I was curious to see what I had to say about her other books, that I had read quite a while ago. 

Turns out it was seven years ago!

I posted my first Barbara Pym review on the 4th June 2013. It was for Excellent Women, her second novel published in 1952. I give you a revised peek into a gorgeous book and a beautifully conceived reading week below.

I am a recent convert to the charming world of Pym.
By recent, I mean just 3 days ago! 
Barbara Pym has been on my radar for a while though. But it wasn't until I joined in The Classics Club Their Eyes Were Watching God sync reading two months ago that I made the first move. 
My copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the designer collection put out by Virago Modern Classics. I loved it so much (book and cover) that I researched to see what other titles were still available in the range.
Excellent Women was one of I snapped it up.
It has been sitting on my bedside table for two months now tempting me with it's delicious cover by Orla Kiely. When I saw that Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle were hosting a Pym reading week in honour of her 100th birthday I saw it as a sign to finally give in to temptation. 
I'm so glad I did. 
Excellent Women has turned out to be a charming, drawing room period piece full of grace and at times, quite biting humour. 
I've seen many references that compare Pym's writing to Jane Austen.
As a long-time Austen fan I can see the similarities - the humorous observations, the details describing the lives of women in the particular period that the two women wrote of. But Austen's ability to weave her plot lines, dialogue and characters into such tight, dare I say, perfect stories is a stand out difference. 
Perhaps Mildred is the post war Charlotte Lucas with a choice of two Mr Collins'. Except Mildred, unlike Charlotte, has more options - Mildred does not have to accept Julian or Everard (if they ever make an offer that is). Mildred can work, she can be independent, she need never be a burden on siblings or nieces and nephews. 
I see Pym's gentle, everyday stories of 'good' women fitting more into the Anita Brookner and Alice Munro writing style.

All four authors share the ability to show us the quotidian events that affected their characters in the times that they lived. 
I keep coming back to this point, because I often read reviews that complain about the lack of feminist rhetoric in Austen and Pym in particular. But that's not the world their characters lived in. Their women were strong, intelligent (mostly) and loving (usually). Their opinions and ideas were based on the world they lived in. They accurately reflected their class, their education and their experiences. 
Mildred's gentle, loving church upbringing meant that she was never going to be one of the bra-burning generation. Some of the most poignant moments in Excellent Women are when Mildred is forced to come face to face with more modern ideas and people. She is the classic fish out of water. 
Mildred was part of that large group of women who remained unmarried after WWII due to the tragic loss of so many (marriageable) men. She worked, lived independently, dreamed her romantic dreams, but ultimately developed a pragmatic, busy and self-contained life to disguise any loneliness or despair that might have crept in. She accepted her lot in life with grace and forbearance.  
I lived a single, fiercely independent life for 18 years (before finding my very own Mr Knightley/Captain Wentworth). I know the joys and freedoms of single life and I also know it's downsides. I know the private deals you make with yourself.

Mildred's experience is authentically drawn by Pym. My heart aches for Mildred - her determination to make the best of things is heart warming and heart breaking in the same breath. 
There is definitely more Pym on my horizon.

And indeed there was!

An Academic Question on the 8th June 2013
Jane and Prudence on the 8th July 2013


  1. Aha another person I know taking part in the reading week. I'd never read any Pym until this week either. :)

    1. I love it when I discover a 'new' author! I then have a whole stack of 'new' books to look forward to reading :-)

  2. Excellent Women was my re-introduction to Pym after many years, and I enjoyed it so much - I love Mildred, and I understand she has a cameo in another book. I'm looking forward to meeting her again, and reading more Pym. I often hear the comparisons with Jane Austen, and I'm always looking for the similarities or connections.

    1. That's the first I've heard about Mildred turning up in another Pym book.
      Can anyone tell me which one?

    2. Mildred makes a cameo appearance in Jane and Prudence. I was delighted at the mention of an old friend :-)

    3. Thanks I have that one on order!

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. Welcome to the world of Barbara Pym!

    1. Thanks JoAnn - as you can see I'm busy doing this instead of reading Tess!!

    2. You're not the only one finding things to read instead of Tess ;-)
      I'm still only on chapter 12.

    3. I'd forgotten how angry Tess makes me feel !! The neglectful parents and the manipulative D'Urberville are doing my head in! Poor Tess.

  4. Anonymous7/6/13

    I enjoyed your post, Brona. I'm glad you've found a new author to love, and I agree that the special edition Virago covers are just lovely.

    I'll be joining you in the world of Pym come tomorrow when I have my Fri/Sat mini-marathon of either Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn. Sampling each has me leaning toward QiA (largely because I have a soft spot for over-60 protagonists,) but your thoughts on EW has me wavering. I'll surely read both soonish, so it's a win-win either way!

  5. I read Quartet in Autumn a few years ago, and remember it as being lovely. Sadly it remains the only Pym that I've read so far. I have bought a few of her titles at second hand books sales. I'd like to read one this year for the centenary, not sure if I will or not though. Glad you discovered her, and are helping to spread the word.

    1. Oh and the covers are stunning.

  6. Great review! I just finished this classic for my own Classic Club list and I loved it. I had just read Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell so I could see the similarities between the social comedies about lovable unmarried women. I definitely want to read more Pym as well. Jane and Prudence is my other Pym for the CC challenge! I definitely can see Mildred as Charlotte Lucas of the 1950s; great metaphor!

    Here is my review of Excellent Women, if interested:

    1. Thanks Elena - I'll pop over & read your review on the weekend :-)


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