Excellent Women

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… 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.

After all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.

Excellent Women is probably the best-known Barbara Pym novel, often recommended to the uninitiated as the book with which to start. Mildred Lathbury, one of those unmarried “excellent women” who tend to get involved in other people’s lives, lives in a slightly shabby corner of postwar London, where she works part time at the Society for the Care of Distressed Gentlewomen and attends the nearby high Anglo-Catholic church. Her well-ordered life is disrupted when a handsome ex-Navy officer and his anthropologist wife move into her building and a clergyman’s attractive widow sets her sights on the vicar.