Friday, 25 February 2011

Anyone For Pym’s?

I went to bed early with a good book and a large handkerchief. I was too tired even to watch Kate Humble investigating nutmeg [hope that programme has recorded properly, so I can catch it later]

The book was one Liz lent me on Sunday night. “Thought you’d enjoy this” she said – not knowing I’d already planned to ask if she had it! Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

pym excellent women

First, a word about the actual book itself which Liz kindly loaned me. It is a Virago Modern Classic, hardback, with a cool Orla Kiely “Striped Petal Print” design on the cover and a foreword by the delightful Alexander McCall Smith.

It is a pleasure to hold it, and apologies to my techie friends out there- but it is far more satisfying than holding a Kindle or iPad!


The story is set just post WW2, and revolves round Mildred Lathbury. She is the spinster daughter of a clergyman [deceased] and lives in London and is a great supporter of the parish. She is one of the ‘excellent women’ who helps Rev Julian Mallory keep his parish ticking over. Living in a house in a ‘fairly respectable’ street, her life changes when new tenants move into the rooms downstairs.

Sensible, ironic, independent, with a self-deprecating sense of humour, Mildred says of herself

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.

Philip Larkin said he would rather read Pym than Austen, and I am inclined to agree with him. I rather overdosed on BP when I first discovered her in the early 80s. I borrowed all of them from South Norwood Library and worked through them in rapid succession.

I think it is time to start again – but slowly this time, and work through the list. Her books deal with ordinary, good people [mostly Anglican ladies living in genteel poverty!]

Pym ew pic

AMcCS says in his foreword

Excellent Women transcends its particular historical setting, …because it says something about human aspirations that is as true today as it was when it was written: we all have our hopes; we are all, to an extent, and unless we are very lucky, unfulfilled in some parts of our life; we would all like things to be just a little bit better for us.

That world of vague longing is described in this novel in a way which not only shows us the poignancy of such hopes, but allows us to smile at them. One does not laugh out loud while reading Pym; that would be too much. One smiles. One smiles and puts down the book to enjoy the smile. Then one picks it up again and a few minutes later an unexpected observation on human foibles makes one smile again.

…We fill our lives with small things, and they become immensely important to us. Barbara Pym understands that, and in celebrating these little things so vividly, she helps us, I think, to be more sympathetic to others. If it is a mark of a great novel that it should help us to feel for others, that it should touch our human capacity for sympathy in an important way, then Excellent Women, a novel that on one level is about very little, is a great novel about a great deal.

He is so right – I didn’t laugh out loud [throat was hurting anyway!] but I did smile. A lot.

Unlike South Norwood Library in 1983, Kirby Muxloe Library in 2011 seems sadly bereft of any Pym. Perhaps all the genteel Anglicans round here possess their own copies and do not need to borrow from the Library?


  1. That sounds perfect. I put it on my list. I'm living through something like that right now. And we meet so many people in the same boat in churches; they seem to be so frustrated, and it comes out of their pores in the oddest ways sometimes. ~Liz

  2. I'm Anglican but not genteel...perhaps if I read Miss Pym?
    Jane x

  3. I have the same copy which I bought because I found the cover so captivating but ended up falling in love with her writing and went on to read as much of her work that I could get my hand on

  4. LizBeth - hope you enjoy Pym as I have done

    Sorry Jane, too late, I think True Anglican Gentility requires a Commitment To Perpetual Spinsterhood!

    MrsB - what does this teach us about judging a book by its cover?!

  5. Oh I love this- I haven't seem the McCall introduction- my editions are much less erudire, i think! the library I discovered Pym in was the local university library- I haven't seen her on our branch shelves at all. I love what McCall says, but would still like a discussion of the triumph and contentment of the single life that I felt was championned in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

  6. Not Anglican nor genteel, but I think I might like this book. I like to smile as I read.



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