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.
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.