Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

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.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

The British Library, under the imprint The British Library Women Writers, has released some excellent looking titles recently, mostly books written by women in the early 20th century, which have largely been forgotten or sunk without a trace. I had already bought a couple of them – Mary Essex’s Tea Is So Intoxicating and Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, and based on my extremely enjoyable experience with the Essex novel, I plan to explore this series more.

Tea Is So Intoxicating, then, is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

David Tompkins and his wife Germayne have arrived in the village of Wellhurst with dreams of opening a tea-house. The dream is more of David’s, who believes cooking is a simple affair if certain methods are followed. David is a retired Naval officer, and it is during a bout of illness that the idea of starting a new venture begins to take shape. What also gives David much confidence is his prior stint as an accountant at the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops Ltd, although he has no practical experience of any kind on the actual running of a tea-house. But this is a point David refuses to acknowledge.

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. Lobster mayonnaise in cartons, fresh salmon with cucumber discs, cut hyper-thin; smoked trout and cheese soufflé, trifle and pêches melba. He believed that he could make the wildest success of it all.

David wants the tea-house to be a classy affair, with the right china and ambience that attracts quality people and not the riff-raff.

The trouble was that these wretched country people did not understand how very first-class the place was going to be. Something ormolu. Something that was dignified and smart, nothing slapdash and likely to appeal to the scum. He was strongly against scum. His place was to be the best, providing the best and only for the best.

Meanwhile, David and Germayne set up residence in a cottage called Higgins-Bottom, a name David despises. He is hell bent on calling it Cherry Tree Cottage, but the villagers are having none of it and Higgins-Bottom stubbornly sticks. The Tompkinses are delighted with the prettiness of the cottage, although there are several practical drawbacks once they instill themselves there.

Essex also expertly weaves in brief backstories of both David and Germayne and how they end up as a couple into the main storyline. David was in a relationship with a woman who was not the marrying kind, an affair that dies a natural death. Germayne was earlier married to Digby, a wealthy man with a comfortable home, but quite set in his ways and also determined to turn Germayne into a new leaf. Both are ambivalent about parenthood, but end up having a daughter called Ducks. While motherhood continues to flummox Germayne, Digby finds himself thrilled to be a father despite his initial reservations. Doting immensely on Ducks, he spoils her silly, giving her free rein in the way she conducts herself. Feeling thoroughly stifled, and also because she considers Digby an insufferable bore, Germayne begins to see a way out when she meets David.

Romance blossoms between the two and Germayne divorces Digby to begin a new phase of life with David.

But with new beginnings come seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, is the capital required to set up the tea-house.  Despite his ambitions, David can’t cook to save his life. There’s this funny, wonderful set-piece in the earlier part of the novel, where wanting to tap into his friend George for investing into his venture, David invites him and his wife Gertrude to spend the weekend at their cottage. But it turns out to be a disaster. David concocts an elaborate menu for dinner, but botches it up. Breakfast is also a paltry affair where David serves omelettes “looking exactly like pieces of yellow window leather.” Obviously, asking an irritable and hungry man for money is hardly going to yield the desired result.

Miraculously, David manages to raise some money anyway, and the project gets going. Things considerably liven up, when Mimi, the cake-cook from Vienna (“ma poor Vienna”, as she calls it) makes an appearance. The men find her utterly charming. George, who did not want to have anything to do with the tea-house earlier, is now open to the idea of lending money, if Mimi’s going to be a permanent fixture. Even Colonel Blandish, a striking figure in the village with a forceful personality, comes around to the view that a tea-house will be a welcome addition to the village, a refreshing change from the overall stodginess that characterizes the place.

But there are strong dissidents. Mr and Mrs Percy, who run a desultory tea place of their own, are hostile because they fear the competition. Mrs Arbroath, lady of the manor, with her domineering personality and conservative views, thinks she runs the village and is dead set against the idea of a tea-house being set up that will attract ‘foreigners.’ To add fuel to the fire, rumours doing the rounds that David and Germayne are ‘not properly married’ only antagonize the residents further. As for Mimi, the women of the village, including Germayne, see right through her and consider her a bad influence.

Her pathetic, “I ‘ave no ‘ome, I ‘ave no love, I work ‘ard, but people misunderstand, and poor Mimi she go on struggle,” brought a round of applause from the gentlemen and a peculiar chilliness from the women, who had no patience with her at all.

 All these ingredients mixed together rustle up a scenario of complete chaos, and when the utterly spoilt Ducks shows up at the village all hell breaks loose.

Will the tea-house become a raging success despite all odds? Or, will David’s best laid plans go awry?

Keeping the comic elements aside, Tea Is So Intoxicating perfectly captures the dynamics of village life – how it is resistant to the winds of change, the petty jealousies and politics, the lives of villagers bandied about as fodder for gossip, and how everybody makes it their business to poke their nose into other people’s affairs.  The novel also examines what makes marriage work (is an exciting, adventurous spouse preferable to a dull, dependable one), and how divorce, though legal, was still frowned upon in conservative circles.

The novel also subtly explores the sweeping changes that were being felt across England post the war, particularly with the imminent prospect of the Labour government coming into power. Rationing was still an issue, and with aristocracy dwindling, people of Mrs Arbroath’s ilk could no longer maintain their mansions, having to sell parcels of land to raise money.

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands…Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried, and what was worse, she had never given up trying.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing.

Tea is certainly intoxicating, as is Mary Essex’s wonderful novel!

And the Wind Sees All – Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (tr. Bjorg Arnadottir & Andrew Cauthery)

The ‘Home in Exile’ series from Peirene Press is a real hit. I had loved both Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra as soon as they were released, but somehow missed And the Wind Sees All, the third in the series. I am glad that I read it now because this was a gorgeously written novella.

And The Wind Sees All is set in a small, Icelandic fishing village called Valeyri. We are transported into this region by the wind, which comes in off the sea…

I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.

As Kata, a choir conductor wearing a polka dot dress, bicycles her way to the concert hall, she passes through the village lanes and is seen by almost all the residents as she flits past their homes.

This framework gives the book an impressionistic feel, as it is composed of short vignettes on the characters that make up the village. It is almost as the entire lives of the villagers are encapsulated in the single time horizon of two minutes (that it takes Kata as she cycles past).

As is the case in small communities, everyone pretty much knows everybody else, it is difficult for secrets to stay hidden for long. But the village somehow accepts who you are and moves on.

The first chapter focuses on Kata and we get a glimpse of her relationship with Andreas suffused with sadness and missed opportunities. Although Kata becomes merely a presence in the subsequent chapters, the sense of lost chances remains.

Love and loss

A sense of profound loss dominates the lives of many of the characters. There’s Arni Moneybags later nicknamed Arni Going Places, with a successful advertising career under his belt. He has an instinct for creating stellar campaigns, and captivating the minds of the audiences. But his relationship with his partner gradually deteriorates. While Arni is glued to his computer, Agusta increasingly withdraws into herself until one day she disappears.

We are also introduced to husband and wife Gudjon and Sveinsina, who are in the same room physically, but miles apart in thoughts. Sveinsina, particularly, reminisces about her first husband Biggi, a guitarist, and how she lost him so young when their son Teddi was only five.

She is thinking about Biggi and the long winter when he dies, that winter in Reykjavik in that godforsaken block of flats, and Teddi was only five and followed his daddy out onto the balcony and watched him climb over the rail on the seventh floor and jump, watched his daddy briefly soar through the air – soar through his white and wonderful dimension – before hitting the pavement.

In another vignette, Gunnar finds the presence of his childhood sweetheart, who he meets after many, many years, almost too painful to bear. Josa, meanwhile, ruminates on her relationship and subsequent marriage with Kalli before he abandons her for another woman Sigga. And yet, they all manage to co-exist in that small community.

Cast of varied characters

More people and sketches of their lives abound. A lot of the characters are in some way related. After her husband Kalli leaves her, Josa is aware that there is life outside but prefers an existence of solitude indoors. Her one contact is her son Gummi, who occasionally visits her to cook a sumptuous meal, and during one of these visits admits to being in relationship with a woman during the height of the Balkan War only to lose contact with her later.

Svenni is an industrious foreman in the factory machine room, polite and respected. And yet he has those days when he calls in sick and holes himself up in the house with bottles of drink.

Sigga is married to Kalli after he left Josa and although she is welcomed in the village wonders whether she really fits in.  

There is one particular piece called the Aroma of Ashes, which focuses on two well-to-do couples who are also best friends. Their lives are filled with expensive holidays and family get-togethers. We learn that while one of one of the couples has a stable marriage, the other pair has a strained relationship.

The sanctity of village life

Is life better in a bigger city such as the capital Reykjavik? Svenni’s parents certainly didn’t think so. Settled in Reykjavik, they send their then 11-year old son to the countryside to appreciate the virtues of hard work and toughen up in the process.

His parents thought that it would be much better for a boy to spend the summer months in the countryside than on the streets of Reykjavik, which would just mean hanging about like a slob and losing his appetite. He would become a pale, apathetic couch potato. In the country, he would find out what real life was all about.

For Teddi, possibly haunted by his father’s suicide when Teddi was five, the village and his vibrant family are beacons he hangs on to remain sane.

As you make for the harbor, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is to aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.

Complex lives

And the Wind Sees All ultimately shows us that human lives are complex, whether you stay in a bucolic fishing village or in a fast paced larger city.  Indeed, people staying in small communities also have their share of disappointments, relationship issues, happiness and success. This is beautifully expressed in each of the vignettes, which cumulatively leaves a much larger impression on the reader of how the characters have intricate inner lives.

A gorgeous gem

And the Wind Sees All then is an exquisite novella where the language is lush and lyrical. In descriptions of both man and nature, the author’s writing is rich heightening the feeling of a calm exterior beneath which secrets and emotions simmer.  

All this movement: the sea is eternal, it nourishes, heals, rinses, gives and takes, is made of currents that have been in motion for millions of years, slipping beneath each other in one continuous swirl, because the sea is, above all, movement.

Although not as hard hitting as either Soviet Milk or Shadows on the Tundra in the ‘Home in Exile’ series, slivers of sadness, nevertheless, seep through each sketch dedicated to a character or group of characters in the novel.

All in all, Peirene Press has clearly scored a hat-trick with this particular series.