Barbara Pym's Excellent Women depicts a world that revolves around spinsters, Anglo-Catholic rituals, anthropologists, church jumble sales, correct behaviour, suitable dress, bathroom sharing, and above all tea. As the above sentence may suggest, externally this is a world that has in some respects gone or is disappearing, one in which the church was all-important as a social focus and moral compass, when people had a 'Christian' name as opposed to a first or forename, when pubs were called 'public houses', when people frequently popped in to visit acquaintances and friends without prior arrangement – before the ubiquity of the telephone as a nervous tic, before the cultural anaesthesia of television.
Mildred Lathbury, a thirtyish spinster who works part time for the Society for the Care of Gentlewomen, is the protagonist and narrator. Her non-working life is wrapped up in church acivities, although the arrival of the anthropologist Helena Napier and her husband Rockingham, neither of whom are churchgoers and both of whom are very extroverted, soon bring a little colour to Mildred's existence. But perhaps this isn't what she really needs.
Mildred tells Dora – also a spinster – that there's no one she wants to marry, and Dora replies that she doesn't know anyone either 'at the moment', an expression that the narrator quietly picks up on and considers:
'It was a kind of fiction that we had always kept up, this not knowing anyone at the moment that we wanted to marry, as if there had been in the past and would be in the future.'