Barbara Pym, “Jane and Prudence”

Barbara Pym’s novels were republished in a handsome uniform edition in the early 1980s and I bought them all. They’ve survived thirty years of bookshelf purges but I hadn’t read one again until now, and I found it really delightful. I remember that some of them were quite depressing, pitilessly recounting the tiny incidents in the lives of middle-class spinsters in postwar England, all dripping rhododendrons, terrible food and worse clothes. But Jane and Prudence is one of the more light-hearted of her comedies, perhaps because there is so little at stake for any of the characters.

Set in an unnamed country parish

We meet Jane and Prudence at an Oxford reunion: Prudence is an elegant 29-year-old spinster and Jane, once her Oxford tutor, a scatterbrained clerical wife. When they go back to their daily lives, Pym lays out for us the deliciously petty behavior of Prudence’s office colleagues and her dreamy crush on her boss, who once called her by her first name. Jane, who once thought her life as a rector’s wife would be like something out of Trollope, is ditsy to the point of derangement. Prudence visits Jane and flirts with a handsome widower whose vanity is possibly Pym’s favorite toy in the book: “‘Well… one has had to hurt people, I suppose,’ said Fabian, tilting his head to one side. He had just realised that the distinguished-looking man sitting at that distant table was himself reflected in a mirror at the far end of the room. No wonder one had had to hurt people, he thought, resting his forehead on his hand.”

The men do not come off well, to be sure: Pym is especially precise about the many privileges and advantages that the women — with greater or lesser eagerness — yield to the men, from better and more food to better jobs. This, despite the proclamation from a bossy spinster that “men are only after one thing.” What that thing might be is adumbrated in a hilarious little exchange as the parish ladies decorate the church for the Harvest Festival. Fabian Driver, the handsome widower, arrives with an immense marrow (i.e. very large squash) cradled in his arms.

“‘What a fine marrow, Mr. Driver,’ said Mis Doggett in a bright tone. ‘It is the biggest one we have had so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?’

“Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.

“‘It is magnificent,’ said Mrs. Mayhew reverently.

“Mr. Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

“Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual at whose significance she hardly dared to guess.”

Much better not to.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Barbara Pym, “Jane and Prudence”

  1. Abby Gruen says:

    Those Barbara Pym stories are so deceptively simple, but actually so deep. I enjoyed what you excerpted, perfect pictures of pathos.

  2. Nathalie Foy says:

    I’ve been puzzling over Excellent Women, my first, and terribly belated Pym, for a week. I can’t find the line: the line where the narrator can no longer be taken at her word and the ironic gap yawns. She is so often so honest about her faults, and yet so frequently blind to her very own emotions. I like wrestling with the characterization, and I am on to my next Pym to see if the authorial voice in the next novel will help me settle my questions. Her autobiography is also on my TBR list. What was your favourite of her novels?

    • carolwallace says:

      I read them all very fast when they came out so I don’t remember a “favorite” but I do remember finding “The Sweet Dove Died” and “No Fond Return of Love” almost unbearably sad. Good call about “the ironic gap.” I didn’t catch that; will have to reconsider.

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