Oh, Mildred Lathbury! Where have you gone?
August 23, 2007 10:44 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend novels whose heroines are similar to the protagonist of Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym?

Excellent Women centers around a woman who is, by the standards of her post-WWII culture, teetering on the brink of spinsterhood. She's the kind of "excellent woman" who organizes church jumble sales, so those around her sometimes take her a little bit for granted. She's also practical, bright, has a lively sense of the ridiculous, and makes sharp (although usually silent) observations about what idiots people are being. She isn't flirtatious, but also isn't wandering around mourning her unmarried state.

I love her! I want there to be more of her! Alas, there is none.

A heroine who has many of the same qualities - to me - is Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But I've already read that.

Any ideas? I'll take all genres and dates of publication!
posted by thehmsbeagle to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
From a co-worker: "'Friday' by Robert Heinlein comes to mind, SF, first-person narrative from a strong female character."
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 10:53 PM on August 23, 2007

posted by fleacircus at 11:20 PM on August 23, 2007

Have you read "I Capture The Castle"?
posted by padraigin at 11:32 PM on August 23, 2007

Maybe Lolly Willowes? Or Carmen Dog? Also, don't forget about Jo March!
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:56 PM on August 23, 2007

You might also really like Molly Gloss's Wild Life.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:58 PM on August 23, 2007

Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is the first to come to mind.

Other characters: Fanny in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. All are perhaps more like Elizabeth than Mildred, but I think you'd probably like all of them.
posted by TayBridge at 12:13 AM on August 24, 2007

And then there's Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon. And then there's also shutting up and going to bed, which I will now do.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:16 AM on August 24, 2007

A closer match among Austen heroines is probably Anne Elliott of Persuasion. Here's what Harold Bloom says about her:
Persuasion is among novels what Anne Elliott is among novelistic characters—a strong but subdued outrider. The book and the character are not colorful or vivacious; Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and Emma Woodhouse of Emma have a verve to them that initially seems lacking in Anne Elliott, which may be what Austen meant when she said that Anne was "almost too good for me."

[The] kind of communication [between Anne and Frederick] in Persuasion depends upon deep "affection," a word that Austen values over "love." "Affection" between woman and man, in Austen, is the more profound and lasting emotion. I think it is not too much to say that Anne Elliott, though subdued, is the creation for whom Austen herself must have felt the most affection, because she lavished her own gifts upon Anne.

posted by rob511 at 2:53 AM on August 24, 2007

I was just going to recommend The Woman In White too. Marian is awesome! (And you get to read her diary entries.)
posted by Brittanie at 3:22 AM on August 24, 2007

Best answer: The first thing to do, if you haven't already done it, is to read your way through the rest of the Barbara Pym canon. (All the novels are wonderful, but I think my favourite is No Fond Return of Love, which I must have read about a dozen times but still makes me weep with laughter.) A Very Private Eye (selections from Pym's letters and diaries) is also a good guide to the novelists she read and admired.

And after Pym, what then? Well, you could go back to the nineteenth century and try some of the novels of Charlotte M. Yonge. The Daisy Chain and The Clever Woman of the Family have strong and independent female characters. Pym acknowledged Yonge as one of her influences (Wilmet Forsythe in A Glass of Blessings is named after Wilmet Underwood in The Pillars of the House) and readers who like one tend to like the other.

Among Pym's contemporaries, the novelists miost often compared to her are Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. You might enjoy Iris Murdoch's The Bell, whose protagonist Dora Greenfield has something of the same ironic detachment that you find in Pym. I'd also recommend Muriel Spark and Jane Gardam. A Far Cry from Kensington has a sharp and intelligent female narrator. The short stories collected in The Sidmouth Letters are a good introduction to Gardam's work. A Long Way from Verona, though written for children, has a strong female narrative voice and can be enjoyed by adult readers as well.

You might also try rummaging through the Virago Modern Classics and Persephone backlists, which are a good source for novels by interesting and neglected authors like Julia Strachey or Winifred Peck.
posted by verstegan at 3:27 AM on August 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Not quite the same, but you might enjoy Margaret Drabble.
posted by theora55 at 6:32 AM on August 24, 2007

Elizabeth (originally published under just that name, but paperbacks have been reissued under the name Elizabeth von Arnim, which makes no sense but there you go). Also, Miss Read.
posted by JanetLand at 7:00 AM on August 24, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Armed with this list, I'm off to stalk bookstores.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:08 AM on August 24, 2007

I think you'd like Isabel Dalhousie in Alexander McCall Smith's The Sunday Philosophy Club series.

Also maybe Elizabeth Peters' Vicky Bliss series.
posted by MsMolly at 10:26 AM on August 24, 2007

Jumping off of MsMolly's suggestion, Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith's other series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency also fits the bill.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 10:58 AM on August 24, 2007

A bit far afield in fantasy genre, there are Patricia Wrede's "Talking to Dragons", Delia Marshall Turner's "Nameless Magery", and Doris Egan's Ivory Trilogy (especially the first two).

Georgette Heyer has a number of splendidly sensible heroines. The first one that come to mind are "The Nonesuch" and "The Talisman Ring".
posted by of strange foe at 11:12 AM on August 24, 2007

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