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General Discussion > "Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym

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message 1: by Kathryn (last edited Jan 26, 2009 08:32AM) (new)

Kathryn | 98 comments In the "Who is like Jane Austen today" thread, someone recommended Excellent Women. I've just finished it and loved it! A most excellent book! Full of lots of humor and thoughtfulness--I agree that it's a bit Jane Austen-esque. However, I am not sure that the overall theme is quite so optimistic as Austen's works. I would be very interested to hear from others who have read this book to find out what they think. Did Mildred find a fulfilling life? What was Pym's view of "excellent women"--were they neglected victims (of themselves? of society?) or silent heroes?

Eagerly awaiting your reply...

message 2: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod

You wont believe -- I finished this book last night! How amazing! I am still sorting my thoughts about it. It was different than I expected -- I think I believed it would be more sophisticated, but it dealt much more with the ordinary.

I can certainly see why there is the Jane Austen comparison. Based on this book (the only of hers I have read) I think Pym falls on a scale between Austen and Margaret Drabble. She reminds me of both.

It is very much about the spot a woman occupies in life, in community, among men, isnt it? And I thought it was very timeless. A lot of references to WWII, since it was set afterward in the 1950's, but I think women in any time could relate to her wondering where is her place? Does she need romantic attachment to secure who she is?

I would have liked a different ending -- that is the part I may have to talk about tomorrow after I have thought on it a while!

Gosh, what interesting, frustrating, and sometimes transparent (Mrs. Vicar's Widow Allegra Gray!) I think she did a fabulous job with Rocky Napier. I could so easily picture him! I think I KNOW him! ha ha

message 3: by Kathryn (last edited Jan 27, 2009 10:06AM) (new)

Kathryn | 98 comments Wow! What a coincidence, Sarah!!! I'm glad to have someone to discuss this one with.

I thought the characterizations were great, too, especially Rocky! I really loved all of Mildred's internal dialogue, especially her quandaries regarding whether or not she was behaving properly--and trying to balance whether she ought to be more pleasing to society or try to please herself more. Most sad/frustrating/interesting of all is that I am not sure that she really knew HOW to please herself... what is it that she really, truly wanted?

I thought the ending was quite surprising!!! I expected some sort of resolution, some sort of break-through on Mildred's part but... I am not sure there really was one. Especially when the two "old maids" came to live in what was once the Napier's apartment, I thought, OH YES, Mildred will see that this is her fate if she does not change her ways... And, yet...? What are we to glean from the ending!?!? Does she really change? I thought that perhaps Everard might see her differently, inspire her to BE different--but, then again, I am not so sure he truly did... Was she, indeed, still being an "excellent woman" in the end, albeit with perhaps a bit more interesting work helping Everard. While a romance was hinted at, I am not so sure it was meant to be developed...? I don't suppose she would ever go with Jullian? Or perhaps it is up to us to choose.

I will be so curious to hear your thoughts on the ending!!! What I am most curious to discuss... Mildred said at the end that she might just have a fulfilling life after all, between helping Jullian and Everard. Do you think she truly believed it? Do you think Pym meant this as a sorrowful tale, a social criticism? In one way, I do think that there is something heroic about being good to others, helpful, conscientious of our fellow human beings. Yet, I cannot help but feel (especially as a woman of the 21st Century) that Mildred was not truly fulfilled because she never had the chance to explore life and find out what she wanted to do. (Not necessarily in terms of a romantic attachment.)

And what about Mrs Napier as a foil to Mildred??? As a "modern woman"??? I think Mildred was at once intrigued and horrified by her... Also, do you think it is implied that her marriage was rough because she was a professional--because her scope was beyond the domestic? Or, simply personalities that she and Rocky were not that devoted to one another?

message 4: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod

So much to examine with this novel! The more I looked back at it I also thought this was a very unique time in history, particularly for the European countries who had lost so many men in the war. The few years following the war must have been SOME sort of an awakening for women. In history class you always hear of how women worked the roles of men DURING the war, but what about right after.

There must have been more "spinsters" (single women-- widowed or lovers killed in war) and there would have been more women trying to figure out what this label means.

So you take Mildred, not only a spinster but one who has always been within the small circle of the church. She says at one point, her little community there in London is pretty much the same as her church community was in her father's village. So she is moving along in this same environment in the same role of church/community volunteer. But it is a new day now, postwar England, postwar woman.

I looked at Allegra as more the character in opposition to Mildred than I did Helena Napier. Allegra was still playing the old game. Attractive widow snatching the likely husband candidate to take care of her (and dance to her tune apparently).

In fairness to Helena, she is a more modern, educated, working woman, but she is also dealing with postwar in her way -- she has a husband returning from war, he hasn't exactly been faithful and she knows it, and she is trying to figure out marriage. She knows they never had a very stable relationship from the beginning, just a physical attraction. She isn't perfect, but I do feel like she is kind of "playing fair." Allegra Gray isn't.

I mentioned Rocky earlier. In reality, he and Helena are well matched I think. He is a very genuine person, second only to Mildred in the story. He doesnt have an agenda, he is who he is. He is very open in conversation (maybe that is REALLY why he is attractive.) He says he isnt too interested in church because he really doesnt like to do things before breakfast! I loved that line.

About what Mildred truly wanted -- maybe the novel ended how it did, because she didnt really come to an end, just a beginning. I think Mildred just then started figuring out things like what she wants vs. what she needs. I will go back into the book and find a few passages to give examples of this.

That may sound a little common for women's novels of today. But for the early 1950s, it was probably new ground for women's lit. Single women encountering life on their own and figuring it out.

Will you read more of Pym's novels?

message 5: by Kathryn (last edited Jan 29, 2009 08:19AM) (new)

Kathryn | 98 comments Loved your insights, Sarah! That is so true about it really being a new age for women. I think the first phase of that was the WWI/post-WWI teens/20s women especially, but certainly there was a lot of this with WWII, as well. I haven't read the book, but the film MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY deals with similar ideas only this time Miss Pettigrew really does decide she wants more out of life and goes for it! (You might enjoy it, if you haven't already seen it.) Though, perhaps you are right that Mildred is just on the cusp of that...

I actually read (after finishing the book, thank goodness!) that one of Pym's other books makes reference to what Mildred does later in life (the book is not about her, though). I was really interested in it, especially since this book ended in such an open way. Let me know if you'd like me to spill the beans! ;->

Oh, as for Helena, I did not mean to make it sound that I disliked her. I actually thought she was a fascinating and, in her own way, heroic character. I agree with your assessment of how things must have been difficult for her with Rocky given his unfaithfulness. Also, I wonder how hard it was for people to get back together after the war--I mean, going several years without seeing one another, and then BOOM! back in one another's lives on every level. Must have been an adjustment! I imagine theirs was not the only marriage that went through some rocky times. Plus, she was trying to make a career for herself in a time where it was not always looked favorably upon--especially such an academic and male-dominated field. So, good for her! :-)

Yes, I definitely intend to read some more Pym. My to-read stack is huge, but someday...!

message 6: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (last edited Jan 29, 2009 08:44AM) (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod
Yes, my to-read stack -- I should call it my to-read house -- they are everywhere! I want to read more Pym too -- I think after a couple days I decided I was attached to her!

I knew you meant that Helena was in contrast to Mildred. She was already traveling down a road of some success being a professional woman and she did have some sophistication. I liked Pym's phrasing and how Mildred would make ordinary statements that were so funny when you read them. But I was thinking of how Helena and Everard were members of the Learned Society. I dont know if that was made up, but it sounded so "establishment" and it did make Helena intimidating, didnt it?

Do you remember the name of the book that mentions the Mildred character later on?

message 8: by SarahC, Austen Votary & Mods' Asst. (new)

SarahC (sarahcarmack) | 1473 comments Mod
Interesting name -- I will look it up.

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