Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

Last week I was on holidays and I did my usual panic book buy in Hodges Figgis the day before I left. One of the books I picked up was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I had never heard of Pym and given the amazing recommendations on the back including a gushing quote by Philip Larkin I thought it might be good to branch out.

Barbara Pym was a English novelist who gained popularity and fame for her comic novels. Her first book “Some Tame Gazelle” was published in 1950 and she continued to publish at a fairly prolific rate until 1963 when she could not find a publisher for her work. She continued to write and the turning point came in the late 70s with an article in the TLS in which Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil proclaimed her “the most underrated writer of the century”.

I finished the book on the plane on the way home and I have to say I’m still a bit mystified as to Pym’s allure as a writer. I kind of feel like I didn’t get it in some way, which is a disconcerting feeling for me! The book was not heavy on plot and as such was more of a character study, a comedy of manners, with the emphasis on detailed and precise sketches of eccentric personalities. While the book raised the odd smile from me I wasn’t bowled over by the sense of humour or the writing and in fact had to fight to finish it! (I’m one of those annoying people who absolutely positively has to finish a book – I can never abandon something halfway through no matter how boring, unfunny, plotless or witless it is!) I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to read Ms. Pym again, unless I happen to have picked one of her less brilliant books. Anyone else read her and disagree with me?

The hardback edition of Excellent Women that I bought is gorgeous – part of the Virago Modern Classics series with a cover designed by Orla Kiely.

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