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Jane and Prudence (1953)

by Barbara Pym

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1,0435314,662 (3.95)2 / 246
The story of the friendship between two women--one the less-than-perfect clergyman's wife, the other younger and unmarried.
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English (51)  Spanish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (53)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
"They say that men only want one thing - that's the truth of the matter". Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing, but had forgotten for the moment what it was."

Barbara Pym's third published novel is a slightly strange one. She was once famously reviewed as a novelist of "much incident and little wit", but I feel that - at least in this instance - the situation is rather the reverse! In the early 1950s, Jane, a vicar's wife, has just moved from London to a country parish, where her comparative uselessness (she can neither cook nor offer the kind of stern leadership over the church women's circle) sees her at odds with the town's expectations. Meanwhile, her friend and former student Prudence - 29 and thus rapidly becoming an old maid - visits from London and is drawn to a handsome but arrogant widower in town. Only Prudence has no idea she has a rival from most unexpected quarters.

Jane and Prudence takes the key concerns from the author's first two novels - spinsters, small town gossip, the relationship of people to the Church of England, love, academia, and "our greater English poets" - and reshuffles the deck. The same cards are deployed but this time with a markedly different effect. Critics have noted that where Pym's first, Some Tame Gazelle, is clearly a young writer's work, her second, Excellent Women, written in the first person, attempts to convey a more ironic, detached tone. I think at first Pym felt she needed to write in the first person to achieve this anthropological view of her characters. By the time of this novel, she was comfortable to write in the "free indirect discourse" style that will dominate her writing henceforth. Now, she gleefully moves from character to character, allowing us to view everyone from multiple perspectives; all are raised up, and all are subsequently deflated. One gets the sense that the novel could just as easily have been told from any character's point-of-view.

‘I suppose old atheists seem less wicked and dangerous than young ones,’ said Jane. 'One feels that there is something of the ancient Greeks in them.’

Jane and Prudence is the favourite Pym novel of Jilly Cooper, and the novelist Elizabeth Taylor wrote a profuse note of thanks to the author on publication. For me, it is certainly delightful, but the sheer plotlessness of the material is rather maddening. Prudence's relationship with Fabian Driver takes place mostly "offscreen", as it were, leaving the novel to fall on Jane's shoulders. And her biggest concern is a doubt when her vicar husband unexpectedly purchases some small cakes of soap in the shape of animals - to the consternation of guests! Perhaps my slight dissatisfaction is that Pym feels more comfortable when writing the quote-unquote spinster Prudence rather than the comfortably married Jane, and her decision to spend more time with the latter makes me feel deprived. Or it could be that - seven decades removed - the boorishness of every single male character frustrates, as they are fawned over by highly-capable women. (Around this time Pym notes in her diary, "With the years men get more bumbling and vague, but women get sharper" )

Still, this is often a very amusing novel. Jane is one of the author's university educated characters and prone to bursting out in her love for the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets; the domineering Miss Doggett and her dowdy companion Miss Morrow are a hoot; and the determination with which small-town etiquette and politics play out is truly funny. (Who should be selected by the host to pour out tea? Is it ever appropriate to serve tinned salmon? What is the appropriate thing to do downstairs while ladies upstairs sort through the possessions of one's dead wife?) And in her dissection of the office workers in Prudence's city life, Pym paves the way for the editorial assistants and humdrum clerks who will play such poignant and/or wry roles in her future works.

A rather pleasing read, but I'm grateful that this marks the end of Pym's early "spinsters and tea" phase. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
Really a 3.5. I've read a couple of Pym's books--this one felt a bit slighter to me. ( )
  giovannaz63 | Jan 18, 2021 |
My very favorite Pym. I read it last year, and I had to close out my season of Pym by reading it again this year. It is full of the richness and wonder of enjoying one's own life as it is. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
strange book. not quite sure what to say. ( )
  mahallett | Sep 15, 2020 |
I was expecting a witty account of rural life, but found this story rather dull. Nothing important or thought-provoking happens throughout.

It is set in the early 1950s, where food shortages after the war were still common, and rationing could depend on personal status in the community. The vicar and the Member of Parliament seemingly deserving to receive better cuts of meat than the rest of the village.

Jane and Prudence also reminds the reader that values were very different back then. A woman was expected to marry, stay at home and look after her husband. Jane, however, is incapable of anything practical in that respect, and often reflects that she should have made more of her educational opportunities instead of trying to fit in with her husband's vocation. I feel in some respects she envies Prudence, who is approaching thirty and still single, having had a number of admirers, none of whom considered marriage with her, and who often daydreams of affairs with unattainable men. At the start of the book, Prudence is imagining being the object of her boss Arthur Grampion's affections.

Jane and Prudence are opposites and it is hard to fathom why their friendship works. Their lifestyles have nothing in common. Jane was Prudence's tutor at Oxford and is some fifteen years her senior. Jane has no interest in fashion, or even smart attire, whilst Prudence is immaculate in her presentation.

It is definitely a book of its own time, filled with quirky characters, and values of yesteryear. It was easy enough to read, but didn't hold my attention. ( )
  Deborah_J_Miles | May 25, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cooper, JillyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ford, JessieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Jane and Prudence were walking in the college garden before dinner.
My grandfather was a clergyman so loved by his parishioners that he was known as 'St Richard'. (Introduction)
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The story of the friendship between two women--one the less-than-perfect clergyman's wife, the other younger and unmarried.

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VIRAGO EDITION:
If Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates seem an unlikely pair to be walking together at an Oxford reunion, neither of them is aware of it. They couldn't be more different: Jane is rather an incompetent vicar's wife, who always looks as if she is about to feed the chickens, while Prudence, a pristine hothouse flower, has the most unsuitable affairs. With the move to a rural parish, Jane is determined to find her friend the perfect man. She learns, though, that matchmaking has as many pitfalls as housewifery...
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