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BY THE FIREPLACE, DREAMING OF LONDON AND PARIS

This winter, rediscover a classic of French crime-Fantômas-whose sinister thrills will leave you with a chill that'll make it seem warm outside.

And curl up with Barbara Pym, the great twentieth-century British novelist who's been called the writer most likely to be compared to Jane Austen. Pym makes her debut in Penguin Classics with Excellent Women one of her richest and most amusing high comedies. A. N. Wilson, the acclaimed author of The Victorians and After the Victorians, among other masterworks of British cultural history, has written for this edition a new introduction, in which he unforgettably calls Mildred Lathbury, the excellent woman at the center of the novel, one of "the vanishing breed of frosty gentlewomen."

Mildred is a woman of unimpeachable manners, a standard-bearer of decorum and social grace. A clergyman's daughter, she is notably unmarried—a churchgoing spinster in her thirties who lives alone in a modest flat. For such a seemingly anodyne character, it is Mildred's piquant observations on everything from baked beans to the proper attire for widows that give full expression to Pym's brilliant comic vision.

"Personally I thought them disgusting." This is what Mildred thinks about the famously erotic drawings of the controversial illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who apparently used to live in the unfashionable London neighborhood that Mildred calls home. And so it is especially delicious for the reader to have the kind of privileged access that Pym provides to those moments when the reliably starched and buttoned-up Mildred gets a little rumpled and mushy-hearted.

Two men in particular send the blood rushing to Mildred's cheeks: one of her new neighbors, the dashing Rockingham Napier, a British naval officer who collects Victoriana; and Everard Bone, an anthropologist who is working with Rockingham's wife on a research project about Africa. As winter flirts with spring and the austerity of Lent gives way to the plenty of Easter, Mildred tries to balance her mid-century British ideals with a little romantic hopefulness.

For a woman who admits to not knowing quite what an anthropologist is, Mildred Lathbury remains one of the most astute social observers in our literature, not to mention a character who deserves to take her place alongside Hyacinth Bucket from the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances and Dana Carvey's Church Lady from Saturday Night Live as one of the great comic icons of repressed—but excellent—women.

—Penguin Classics Editor, John Siciliano

Excellent Women
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