Excellent women are women men take for granted. In a parish, they are there to help make the tea, arrange flowers in the church and provide companionship for the more boring members of the congregation with whom the priests can't be bothered.
Those women who are openly sexually alluring do not seem to be excellent, and do not need to bother themselves with such unselfish tasks as washing up or making curtains.
-Excerpt from A. N. Wilson's 2005 Introduction (Excellent Women by Barbara Pym)
Miss Mildred Lathbury is at the center of Barbara Pym's quietly comical and unpretentious story, Excellent Women. We are introduced to Mildred's way of thinking on the first page of the novel as she ponders her life at present.
I suppose 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, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.Later in the novel we accompany Mildred as she is lost in a crowd of busy women shopping. Soon she is looking at her reflection in a mirror and seeing herself as colourless and worried-looking, the eyes large and rather frightened, the lips too pale. An uncomfortable encounter with a sales clerk ends even more uncomfortably, but with her desired shade of lipstick in hand.
'Thank you, but I think I will have Hawaiian Fire,' I said obstinately, savouring the ludicrous words and the full depths of my shame.Although we have very little in common, I am quite fond of Mildred. Seeing 1950s England through her eyes is a treat. Her observations of everyday life are subtle, yet crystal clear. Honestly, I really don't think she would have liked me very much, but she would have tolerated me, because that's what Mildred does, she tolerates people. She believes it is her duty. It would not be wise for me to hope for more. But like Mildred, I would adore Rockingham Napier before ever setting eyes on him. Rockingham is such a fabulously commanding name. And if I lived in 1950s England, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself sitting alone eating a very small chop followed by a little knitting with my radio tuned to Saturday Night Theatre. This does actually resemble a night I might have while Chris works late. My kind of adventure. Also, I find her idea for a novel exquisite. Perhaps Miss Lathbury and I have more in common than I originally thought.
I hurried away and found myself on an escalator. Hawaiian Fire, indeed! Nothing more unsuitable could possibly be imagined. I began to smile and only just stopped myself from laughing out loud...
Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin. Mr. Napier was called Rockingham!
I dare say a clever person with a fantastic turn of mind could transform even a laundry list into a poem.
I hurried about the kitchen, eating the baked beans in ten minutes or less, quite without dignity, and then washing up.
I thought of my half-used tin of baked beans; no doubt I should be seeing them again tomorrow.
You know I'm not used to wine, particularly in the middle of the day, I said, but it's rather pleasant to be unlike oneself occasionally.
It was a sobering kind of place to be in and a glance at my face in the dusty ill-lit mirror was enough to discourage anybody's romantic thoughts.
It was a good thing he began talking, for I am not used to meeting handsome men and I am afraid that I must have been staring at him rather rudely.
So he did remember me like that after all -- a woman who was always making cups of tea. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but to make one.
My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.
-Miss Mildred Lathbury Excerpts (Excellent Women by Barbara Pym 1952)
One more thing before I go. It's always interesting to see the way the British use English a bit differently than we do here in America. For instance, I was sent to the dictionary after feeling confused by a particular passage in Excellent Women and learned the following (note 1 chiefly British, not 2):
Main Entry: slut
Etymology: Middle English slutte
Date: 15th century
1 chiefly British : a slovenly woman
2 a : a promiscuous woman; especially : prostitute b : a saucy girl : minx
There, we've gotten that out of the way. Now new American readers of Excellent Women will not be confused.