Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.
Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”
Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.
Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.
It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.
Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.
In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.
Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.
And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.
Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.
Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?
As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.
As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.
“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.
Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.
Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.
This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.