|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
|Pages||256 p. (hardback edition)|
The phrase "excellent women" is used as a condescending reference to the kind of women who perform menial duties in the service of churches and voluntary organisations.
The book details the everyday life of Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her thirties in 1950s England. Perpetually self-deprecating, but with the sharpest wit, Mildred is a part-time voluntary worker who occupies herself by attending and helping at the local church. Mildred's life grows more exciting with the arrival of new neighbours, anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky - with whom Mildred fancies herself in love. Through the Napiers, she meets another anthropologist, Everard Bone, and it is with him that Mildred will eventually form a relationship. A sub-plot revolves around the activities of the local vicar, Julian Malory, who becomes engaged to a glamorous widow, Allegra Gray. Allegra proceeds to ease out Julian's sister, Winifred, a close friend of Mildred's. Eventually matters come to a head and Allegra leaves the vicarage after a quarrel. In the meantime, Helena, who has been on the verge of leaving Rocky for Everard, accepts that Everard does not care for her and leaves the neighbourhood, along with Rocky.
As with most of Pym's books, the plot is less important than the precise drawing of the comic characters (such as Everard's elderly mother who is obsessed with the suppression of woodworm) and situations.
- Mildred Lathbury
- Helena Napier
- Rockingham Napier
- Julian Malory
- Winifred Malory
- Everard Bone
- Mrs Bone
- Allegra Gray
- Dora Caldicote (Mildred's old schoolfriend)
- William Caldicote (Dora's brother)
- Mrs Morris (cleaning lady and confidante)
- Miss Jessop (friend of Mrs Bone)
- Sister Blatt (member of Julian's congregation)
- Other anthropologists
Rockingham Napier has been flag lieutenant to an admiral in Italy where his wife says he 'hasn't had to do anything much but be charming to a lot of dreary Wren officers.' Barbara Pym had been a WRN officer in Italy during World War II.
During the 1960s and early 1970s when Pym's writing was somewhat overlooked, the poet Philip Larkin exchanged letters with her. In a 14 July 1964 letter, having just re-read Excellent Women, he told her it was "better than I remembered it, full of a harsh kind of suffering [-] it's a study of the pain of being single,- time and again one senses not only that Mildred is suffering but that nobody can see why she shouldn't suffer, like a Victorian cabhorse. " And again in a letter of 1971 he praised the book, - "what a marvellous set of characters it contains! My only criticism is that Mildred is a tiny bit too humble at times, but perhaps she's satirising herself. I never see any Rockys, but almost every young academic wife ('I'm a shit') has something of Helena."
In Jane and Prudence (1953), one of the characters mentions that "nice Miss Lathbury" has married an anthropologist (presumably Everard). In Less than Angels (1955), Everard reappears as a character. Esther Clovis remembers that "Everard had married a rather dull woman who was nevertheless a great help to him in his work; as a clergyman's daughter she naturally got on very well with the missionaries that they were meeting now that they were in Africa again." Later Pym writes "Everard's wife Mildred would do the typing."