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Jane and Prudence (1953)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,1805916,869 (3.93)2 / 258
The author of Excellent Women explores female friendship and the quiet yearnings of British middle-class life-a literary delight for fans of Jane Austen. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates were close friends at Oxford University, but now live very different lives. Forty-one-year-old Jane lives in the country, is married to a vicar, has a daughter she adores, and lives a very proper life in a very proper English parish. Prudence, a year shy of thirty, lives in London, has an office job, and is self-sufficient and fiercely independent-until Jane decides her friend should be married. Jane has the perfect husband in mind for her former pupil: a widower named Fabian Driver. But there are other women vying for Fabian's attention. And Pru is nursing her own highly inappropriate desire for her older, married, and seemingly oblivious employer, Dr. Grampian. What follows is a witty, delightful, trenchant story of manners, morals, family, and female bonding that redefines the social novel for a new generation.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 55 (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 | Apr 21, 2024 |
Reason read: BAC
This was the author’s third novel and was received with mixed reviews and the author was disappointed in it. It is the story of Jane, wife of a clergy, trying to matchmake for her friend Prudence. Prudence is a younger, single, independent young lady of London. The story takes place in a quiet little village. I would say that the story is not hard to read but it is probably a so so story that isn’t unlike other books. ( )
  Kristelh | Apr 10, 2024 |
Another insightful novel of 1950s England. Wonderful characters observed with a deep look at their lives interplay. No page turner heavy with plots. A book more for leisurely reading with tea in the afternoon and evening. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Jan 14, 2024 |

Jane is the older woman in this story, married to a clergyman, who gets assigned to a country parish not far outside London. With her daughter Flora about to start university (Flora is a 2D character, with nary a speaking part, and much consigned to being in the kitchen making pots of tea for visitors). Jane is a forgetful woman, with sentences trailing off in the middle, and she's never quite sure she's doing what she should be doing in supporting her husband. However, she's on the lookout for a potential husband for her much younger and more glamorous friend Prudence.

Prudence is 29, still single and always finding herself in inappropriate love affairs. She is currently pining after her much older (and very much married) boss, who ignores her potential until it's far too late. Prudence's friendship with Jane, and the regular visits to the parish, allows Prudence to enter in rather more appropriate love affairs.

I know people who *adore* Barbara Pym, and whilst I found it amusing, it was not in the same league as, say, a Dorothy Whipple or a Stevenson, both of whom publish similar books written and set around the same time. ( )
  nordie | Oct 14, 2023 |

Jane is the older woman in this story, married to a clergyman, who gets assigned to a country parish not far outside London. With her daughter Flora about to start university (Flora is a 2D character, with nary a speaking part, and much consigned to being in the kitchen making pots of tea for visitors). Jane is a forgetful woman, with sentences trailing off in the middle, and she's never quite sure she's doing what she should be doing in supporting her husband. However, she's on the lookout for a potential husband for her much younger and more glamorous friend Prudence.

Prudence is 29, still single and always finding herself in inappropriate love affairs. She is currently pining after her much older (and very much married) boss, who ignores her potential until it's far too late. Prudence's friendship with Jane, and the regular visits to the parish, allows Prudence to enter in rather more appropriate love affairs.

I know people who *adore* Barbara Pym, and whilst I found it amusing, it was not in the same league as, say, a Dorothy Whipple or a Stevenson, both of whom publish similar books written and set around the same time. ( )
  nordie | Oct 14, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 55 (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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'I was going to be such a splendid clergyman's wife when I married you, but somehow it hasn't turned out like The Daisy Chain or The Last Chronicles of Barset.'
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (1)

The author of Excellent Women explores female friendship and the quiet yearnings of British middle-class life-a literary delight for fans of Jane Austen. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates were close friends at Oxford University, but now live very different lives. Forty-one-year-old Jane lives in the country, is married to a vicar, has a daughter she adores, and lives a very proper life in a very proper English parish. Prudence, a year shy of thirty, lives in London, has an office job, and is self-sufficient and fiercely independent-until Jane decides her friend should be married. Jane has the perfect husband in mind for her former pupil: a widower named Fabian Driver. But there are other women vying for Fabian's attention. And Pru is nursing her own highly inappropriate desire for her older, married, and seemingly oblivious employer, Dr. Grampian. What follows is a witty, delightful, trenchant story of manners, morals, family, and female bonding that redefines the social novel for a new generation.

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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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