An Academic Question (1986): Barbara Pym

★★½

I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

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Excellent Women (1952): Barbara Pym

★★★★

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Barbara Pym and now I’m wondering how on earth I managed to avoid her for so long. First published in 1952, Excellent Women is a comedy of manners set in contemporary London, in a community based around the local church. At its heart is Mildred Lathbury, orphaned clergyman’s daughter and self-professed spinster: one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied upon to keep the parish running, join in with the flower rota and man the stalls at the church fair. Mildred’s world has the stifling cosiness of a small village, where everyone knows one another’s business and gossip greases the cogs of life. But around her, the world is changing. When a young couple moves into the flat below Mildred’s, she finds herself unwillingly dragged into their vibrant, unconventional, and entirely shocking lives.

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