Excellent Women

CassandraAustenSilhouetteNicola here. A fairly brief blog from me today as I’m struggling towards the end of the current manuscript and am chained to it until it’s done! A few weeks ago, when I was still allowed out, I went to a talk at a local bookshop about a new book by a local author, Gill Hornby. The book is called Miss Austen and it is a fictional look at the life of the lesser-known Austen sister, Cassandra. In particular it tackles the literary mystery of why Cassandra destroyed so many of Jane Austen’s letters. Gill gave a fascinating interview into the background and research she did for the book and gave us her view on both Jane and Cassandra’s characters. She came across, as the interviewer noted, as quite protective of Cassandra; Gill said that this was because Jane is always – rightly – lauded as a genius, but Cassandra was an unsung heroine. In her words, Cassandra was an “excellent woman.”

Barbara Pym wrote a book with the title Excellent Women in the 1950s. The title – and the main character Mildred Lathbury – were Excellent women recognisable and understandable to everyone; a woman who is so often taken for granted, who is quietly capable of dealing with everything from a major life crisis to a garden party that is rained off. An excellent woman dispenses tea, sympathy and bracing common sense advice. She is often overlooked and not thanked as much as she should be. Often the excellent women have been called that by men because they are enablers who allow the men in the story to lead the life they want by unobtrusively dealing with any problems that get in the way.  In Cassandra Austen’s case she was the person who enabled Jane to write by running their household, planning meals, managing the servants, caring for their mother. Everyone thought she was a good sort; in her letters she notes with only the slightest hint of reproach that when her mother was dying her brothers did not come to visit or help out, though she knew they would if she had asked them. The boys thought she could cope and of course she could, so they let her get on with it. It was easier.

Often "excellent women" were spinsters,sometimes the "surplus women" resulting from wars whether that was in the Napoleonic period or the early twentieth century. These indispensable historical women, who sometimes traded board and lodging to act as unpaid servants or companions, were the ones who were felt to have the spare time to look after other people's children or help run a household because they had no family of their own. It wasn't only single women who were these under-appreciated angels however; a married woman who was capable but unobtrusive was considered equally excellent.

Miss austenIt’s worth remembering, though, that the original mention of an excellent woman in the bible stated that “her worth is far more than precious jewels.” She shouldn’t be undervalued or taken for granted because if she stopped doing all the things she does so efficiently, the world would grind to a halt. When I was a university administrator, I remember someone saying that the best sort of administration was the one nobody noticed because it was silent but effective, enabling the academics to do their job. We certainly got taken for granted in my day! Perhaps that’s changed, or perhaps not. I imagine we all know someone who is an “excellent woman” and these days a number of “excellent men” who quietly and efficiently enable other people to get on with what they are doing. Perhaps we should remember to thank them and appreciate them more because they are multi-talented. As Gill Hornby said, without Cassandra, there would have been no Jane Austen in the shape and form we have her.

I also think that tea and excellent women go together. I can just imagine Cassandra unobtrusively Teapot organising refreshments for visitors whilst Jane entertains them with her dazzling wit. And of course the other thing about excellent people is that often they are as clever and sharp-witted as their more dashing fellows, they are just quieter about it, and good observers too.

From Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym:

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, 'Do we need tea? she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury…' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”

180px-IcapturethecastleDo you know any “excellent people” either in history, fiction or in real life? I’m giving a shout out here to people who empower others in a positive way to get things done! My favourite fictional excellent person is another Cassandra, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, who is so practical compared to her beautiful sister Rose, is in danger of being overlooked, but is a sharp observer, and funny and clever, the sort of person I’d want as a friend!

80 thoughts on “Excellent Women”

  1. I loved this blog. It makes be sit up and think.
    I can’t, off the top of my head, name any “excellent people”, but we all know some, whether personally or in literature. And I believe they will always be with us. They are necessary in many ways, but their anonymity and lack of appreciation should not be.
    Nicola, not sure what your definition of a brief blog is, but I don’t think this qualifies.

    Reply
  2. I loved this blog. It makes be sit up and think.
    I can’t, off the top of my head, name any “excellent people”, but we all know some, whether personally or in literature. And I believe they will always be with us. They are necessary in many ways, but their anonymity and lack of appreciation should not be.
    Nicola, not sure what your definition of a brief blog is, but I don’t think this qualifies.

    Reply
  3. I loved this blog. It makes be sit up and think.
    I can’t, off the top of my head, name any “excellent people”, but we all know some, whether personally or in literature. And I believe they will always be with us. They are necessary in many ways, but their anonymity and lack of appreciation should not be.
    Nicola, not sure what your definition of a brief blog is, but I don’t think this qualifies.

    Reply
  4. I loved this blog. It makes be sit up and think.
    I can’t, off the top of my head, name any “excellent people”, but we all know some, whether personally or in literature. And I believe they will always be with us. They are necessary in many ways, but their anonymity and lack of appreciation should not be.
    Nicola, not sure what your definition of a brief blog is, but I don’t think this qualifies.

    Reply
  5. I loved this blog. It makes be sit up and think.
    I can’t, off the top of my head, name any “excellent people”, but we all know some, whether personally or in literature. And I believe they will always be with us. They are necessary in many ways, but their anonymity and lack of appreciation should not be.
    Nicola, not sure what your definition of a brief blog is, but I don’t think this qualifies.

    Reply
  6. I agree with Alison that your fascinating post was hardly brief, Nicola! And can I say that I like the colorful tea pot pictured above? I’m drawing a blank on excellent women but will be back if I think of some.

    Reply
  7. I agree with Alison that your fascinating post was hardly brief, Nicola! And can I say that I like the colorful tea pot pictured above? I’m drawing a blank on excellent women but will be back if I think of some.

    Reply
  8. I agree with Alison that your fascinating post was hardly brief, Nicola! And can I say that I like the colorful tea pot pictured above? I’m drawing a blank on excellent women but will be back if I think of some.

    Reply
  9. I agree with Alison that your fascinating post was hardly brief, Nicola! And can I say that I like the colorful tea pot pictured above? I’m drawing a blank on excellent women but will be back if I think of some.

    Reply
  10. I agree with Alison that your fascinating post was hardly brief, Nicola! And can I say that I like the colorful tea pot pictured above? I’m drawing a blank on excellent women but will be back if I think of some.

    Reply
  11. Thank you very much, Alison. I’m so glad you found the blog thought-provoking. I felt like that about the talk Gill Hornby gave; it really made me think. I’m trying to think of some more excellent women in fiction now. My m-i-l is definitely a real life one!

    Reply
  12. Thank you very much, Alison. I’m so glad you found the blog thought-provoking. I felt like that about the talk Gill Hornby gave; it really made me think. I’m trying to think of some more excellent women in fiction now. My m-i-l is definitely a real life one!

    Reply
  13. Thank you very much, Alison. I’m so glad you found the blog thought-provoking. I felt like that about the talk Gill Hornby gave; it really made me think. I’m trying to think of some more excellent women in fiction now. My m-i-l is definitely a real life one!

    Reply
  14. Thank you very much, Alison. I’m so glad you found the blog thought-provoking. I felt like that about the talk Gill Hornby gave; it really made me think. I’m trying to think of some more excellent women in fiction now. My m-i-l is definitely a real life one!

    Reply
  15. Thank you very much, Alison. I’m so glad you found the blog thought-provoking. I felt like that about the talk Gill Hornby gave; it really made me think. I’m trying to think of some more excellent women in fiction now. My m-i-l is definitely a real life one!

    Reply
  16. Well, as I have frequently been saying, I have been reading two books about Abigail and John Adams. I believe that Abigail is an excellent woman. She was much admired by John; but I think that the rest of the world, then and now, see her as an apendage. Instead, she was his enabler in the best sense of that much misused world.
    To quote from the Benét Book of Americans:
    Now John had no tact,
    But his Abigail did,
    A salient fact
    Which she tactfuly hid.

    Reply
  17. Well, as I have frequently been saying, I have been reading two books about Abigail and John Adams. I believe that Abigail is an excellent woman. She was much admired by John; but I think that the rest of the world, then and now, see her as an apendage. Instead, she was his enabler in the best sense of that much misused world.
    To quote from the Benét Book of Americans:
    Now John had no tact,
    But his Abigail did,
    A salient fact
    Which she tactfuly hid.

    Reply
  18. Well, as I have frequently been saying, I have been reading two books about Abigail and John Adams. I believe that Abigail is an excellent woman. She was much admired by John; but I think that the rest of the world, then and now, see her as an apendage. Instead, she was his enabler in the best sense of that much misused world.
    To quote from the Benét Book of Americans:
    Now John had no tact,
    But his Abigail did,
    A salient fact
    Which she tactfuly hid.

    Reply
  19. Well, as I have frequently been saying, I have been reading two books about Abigail and John Adams. I believe that Abigail is an excellent woman. She was much admired by John; but I think that the rest of the world, then and now, see her as an apendage. Instead, she was his enabler in the best sense of that much misused world.
    To quote from the Benét Book of Americans:
    Now John had no tact,
    But his Abigail did,
    A salient fact
    Which she tactfuly hid.

    Reply
  20. Well, as I have frequently been saying, I have been reading two books about Abigail and John Adams. I believe that Abigail is an excellent woman. She was much admired by John; but I think that the rest of the world, then and now, see her as an apendage. Instead, she was his enabler in the best sense of that much misused world.
    To quote from the Benét Book of Americans:
    Now John had no tact,
    But his Abigail did,
    A salient fact
    Which she tactfuly hid.

    Reply
  21. I agree with Sue that Abigail was an excellent woman. Everything I’ve read about her leads one to believe she was the power behind the throne as they say. She kept the family together, fed, educated, etc. while John was off doing politics.

    Reply
  22. I agree with Sue that Abigail was an excellent woman. Everything I’ve read about her leads one to believe she was the power behind the throne as they say. She kept the family together, fed, educated, etc. while John was off doing politics.

    Reply
  23. I agree with Sue that Abigail was an excellent woman. Everything I’ve read about her leads one to believe she was the power behind the throne as they say. She kept the family together, fed, educated, etc. while John was off doing politics.

    Reply
  24. I agree with Sue that Abigail was an excellent woman. Everything I’ve read about her leads one to believe she was the power behind the throne as they say. She kept the family together, fed, educated, etc. while John was off doing politics.

    Reply
  25. I agree with Sue that Abigail was an excellent woman. Everything I’ve read about her leads one to believe she was the power behind the throne as they say. She kept the family together, fed, educated, etc. while John was off doing politics.

    Reply
  26. I love that little verse!
    I suspect that one of the reasons we are having trouble thinking of excellent women is that they are invisible. They’re the ones keeping things running so smoothly that we don’t even realize that there is someone actually taking care of things, and things aren’t just running smoothly on their own.
    I am reminded of an old joke I once heard, about a couple where he decided the major things and she took care of the minor details. He decided things like whether or not the draft should be reinstated and she decided things like where the family should live.

    Reply
  27. I love that little verse!
    I suspect that one of the reasons we are having trouble thinking of excellent women is that they are invisible. They’re the ones keeping things running so smoothly that we don’t even realize that there is someone actually taking care of things, and things aren’t just running smoothly on their own.
    I am reminded of an old joke I once heard, about a couple where he decided the major things and she took care of the minor details. He decided things like whether or not the draft should be reinstated and she decided things like where the family should live.

    Reply
  28. I love that little verse!
    I suspect that one of the reasons we are having trouble thinking of excellent women is that they are invisible. They’re the ones keeping things running so smoothly that we don’t even realize that there is someone actually taking care of things, and things aren’t just running smoothly on their own.
    I am reminded of an old joke I once heard, about a couple where he decided the major things and she took care of the minor details. He decided things like whether or not the draft should be reinstated and she decided things like where the family should live.

    Reply
  29. I love that little verse!
    I suspect that one of the reasons we are having trouble thinking of excellent women is that they are invisible. They’re the ones keeping things running so smoothly that we don’t even realize that there is someone actually taking care of things, and things aren’t just running smoothly on their own.
    I am reminded of an old joke I once heard, about a couple where he decided the major things and she took care of the minor details. He decided things like whether or not the draft should be reinstated and she decided things like where the family should live.

    Reply
  30. I love that little verse!
    I suspect that one of the reasons we are having trouble thinking of excellent women is that they are invisible. They’re the ones keeping things running so smoothly that we don’t even realize that there is someone actually taking care of things, and things aren’t just running smoothly on their own.
    I am reminded of an old joke I once heard, about a couple where he decided the major things and she took care of the minor details. He decided things like whether or not the draft should be reinstated and she decided things like where the family should live.

    Reply
  31. I did think of an excellent fictional woman in a historical romance series ~ Beth Ackerley who marries Lord Ian Mackenzie in the Mackenzies series by Jennifer Ashley.

    Reply
  32. I did think of an excellent fictional woman in a historical romance series ~ Beth Ackerley who marries Lord Ian Mackenzie in the Mackenzies series by Jennifer Ashley.

    Reply
  33. I did think of an excellent fictional woman in a historical romance series ~ Beth Ackerley who marries Lord Ian Mackenzie in the Mackenzies series by Jennifer Ashley.

    Reply
  34. I did think of an excellent fictional woman in a historical romance series ~ Beth Ackerley who marries Lord Ian Mackenzie in the Mackenzies series by Jennifer Ashley.

    Reply
  35. I did think of an excellent fictional woman in a historical romance series ~ Beth Ackerley who marries Lord Ian Mackenzie in the Mackenzies series by Jennifer Ashley.

    Reply
  36. I LOVED your column.
    It’s so much easier for people to choose to be blind and apathetic to the effort of these excellent women who usually take care of elderly, sick parents and/or disabled children. Often, their houses are not immaculate, nor are their persons. Sometimes, they bake for the neighbors, but usually not. Like ducks, they look so calm as they furiously paddle. Often, they pay a high price, as their efforts are too often ignored, slighted, or unacknowledged.

    Reply
  37. I LOVED your column.
    It’s so much easier for people to choose to be blind and apathetic to the effort of these excellent women who usually take care of elderly, sick parents and/or disabled children. Often, their houses are not immaculate, nor are their persons. Sometimes, they bake for the neighbors, but usually not. Like ducks, they look so calm as they furiously paddle. Often, they pay a high price, as their efforts are too often ignored, slighted, or unacknowledged.

    Reply
  38. I LOVED your column.
    It’s so much easier for people to choose to be blind and apathetic to the effort of these excellent women who usually take care of elderly, sick parents and/or disabled children. Often, their houses are not immaculate, nor are their persons. Sometimes, they bake for the neighbors, but usually not. Like ducks, they look so calm as they furiously paddle. Often, they pay a high price, as their efforts are too often ignored, slighted, or unacknowledged.

    Reply
  39. I LOVED your column.
    It’s so much easier for people to choose to be blind and apathetic to the effort of these excellent women who usually take care of elderly, sick parents and/or disabled children. Often, their houses are not immaculate, nor are their persons. Sometimes, they bake for the neighbors, but usually not. Like ducks, they look so calm as they furiously paddle. Often, they pay a high price, as their efforts are too often ignored, slighted, or unacknowledged.

    Reply
  40. I LOVED your column.
    It’s so much easier for people to choose to be blind and apathetic to the effort of these excellent women who usually take care of elderly, sick parents and/or disabled children. Often, their houses are not immaculate, nor are their persons. Sometimes, they bake for the neighbors, but usually not. Like ducks, they look so calm as they furiously paddle. Often, they pay a high price, as their efforts are too often ignored, slighted, or unacknowledged.

    Reply
  41. May I advance two others (if you feel I’ve had my say, just delete this)?
    Semi-fictional, but base on fact: Marmie March and Ma Ingalls. They were role models for me when I began to have children.

    Reply
  42. May I advance two others (if you feel I’ve had my say, just delete this)?
    Semi-fictional, but base on fact: Marmie March and Ma Ingalls. They were role models for me when I began to have children.

    Reply
  43. May I advance two others (if you feel I’ve had my say, just delete this)?
    Semi-fictional, but base on fact: Marmie March and Ma Ingalls. They were role models for me when I began to have children.

    Reply
  44. May I advance two others (if you feel I’ve had my say, just delete this)?
    Semi-fictional, but base on fact: Marmie March and Ma Ingalls. They were role models for me when I began to have children.

    Reply
  45. May I advance two others (if you feel I’ve had my say, just delete this)?
    Semi-fictional, but base on fact: Marmie March and Ma Ingalls. They were role models for me when I began to have children.

    Reply
  46. Sue, that’s such a great quote and perfectly sums up the role of the excellent woman. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  47. Sue, that’s such a great quote and perfectly sums up the role of the excellent woman. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  48. Sue, that’s such a great quote and perfectly sums up the role of the excellent woman. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  49. Sue, that’s such a great quote and perfectly sums up the role of the excellent woman. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  50. Sue, that’s such a great quote and perfectly sums up the role of the excellent woman. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  51. Thank you, Lynda. Yes, it is sometimes easy to overlook the efforts of women like that because they are so good at making it look easy when actually they work so hard!

    Reply
  52. Thank you, Lynda. Yes, it is sometimes easy to overlook the efforts of women like that because they are so good at making it look easy when actually they work so hard!

    Reply
  53. Thank you, Lynda. Yes, it is sometimes easy to overlook the efforts of women like that because they are so good at making it look easy when actually they work so hard!

    Reply
  54. Thank you, Lynda. Yes, it is sometimes easy to overlook the efforts of women like that because they are so good at making it look easy when actually they work so hard!

    Reply
  55. Thank you, Lynda. Yes, it is sometimes easy to overlook the efforts of women like that because they are so good at making it look easy when actually they work so hard!

    Reply
  56. Those are very good choices, Sue – women efficiently getting on with the job. I’d add Anne Elliot from Persuasion to use an example from Jane Austen herself.

    Reply
  57. Those are very good choices, Sue – women efficiently getting on with the job. I’d add Anne Elliot from Persuasion to use an example from Jane Austen herself.

    Reply
  58. Those are very good choices, Sue – women efficiently getting on with the job. I’d add Anne Elliot from Persuasion to use an example from Jane Austen herself.

    Reply
  59. Those are very good choices, Sue – women efficiently getting on with the job. I’d add Anne Elliot from Persuasion to use an example from Jane Austen herself.

    Reply
  60. Those are very good choices, Sue – women efficiently getting on with the job. I’d add Anne Elliot from Persuasion to use an example from Jane Austen herself.

    Reply
  61. It’s like the Mary and Martha story. Mary was a spiritual woman, inspirational, the real deal; in her travels when people met with her, they all came away feeling that their minds were expanded and they had been renewed. Meanwhile Martha found the lodgings, prepared the food, washed the clothing and did the tangible tasks. Mary was a genuinely inspirational person, but Martha made her *possible* in the physical world.
    Jane wrote the books, Cassandra supported her in her work and protected her name. The unseen and unthanked person without whom we might not have had those wonderful books.

    Reply
  62. It’s like the Mary and Martha story. Mary was a spiritual woman, inspirational, the real deal; in her travels when people met with her, they all came away feeling that their minds were expanded and they had been renewed. Meanwhile Martha found the lodgings, prepared the food, washed the clothing and did the tangible tasks. Mary was a genuinely inspirational person, but Martha made her *possible* in the physical world.
    Jane wrote the books, Cassandra supported her in her work and protected her name. The unseen and unthanked person without whom we might not have had those wonderful books.

    Reply
  63. It’s like the Mary and Martha story. Mary was a spiritual woman, inspirational, the real deal; in her travels when people met with her, they all came away feeling that their minds were expanded and they had been renewed. Meanwhile Martha found the lodgings, prepared the food, washed the clothing and did the tangible tasks. Mary was a genuinely inspirational person, but Martha made her *possible* in the physical world.
    Jane wrote the books, Cassandra supported her in her work and protected her name. The unseen and unthanked person without whom we might not have had those wonderful books.

    Reply
  64. It’s like the Mary and Martha story. Mary was a spiritual woman, inspirational, the real deal; in her travels when people met with her, they all came away feeling that their minds were expanded and they had been renewed. Meanwhile Martha found the lodgings, prepared the food, washed the clothing and did the tangible tasks. Mary was a genuinely inspirational person, but Martha made her *possible* in the physical world.
    Jane wrote the books, Cassandra supported her in her work and protected her name. The unseen and unthanked person without whom we might not have had those wonderful books.

    Reply
  65. It’s like the Mary and Martha story. Mary was a spiritual woman, inspirational, the real deal; in her travels when people met with her, they all came away feeling that their minds were expanded and they had been renewed. Meanwhile Martha found the lodgings, prepared the food, washed the clothing and did the tangible tasks. Mary was a genuinely inspirational person, but Martha made her *possible* in the physical world.
    Jane wrote the books, Cassandra supported her in her work and protected her name. The unseen and unthanked person without whom we might not have had those wonderful books.

    Reply

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