Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have finally launched myself into the wonderful world of Pym and it has been simply marvellous. I fancied a break from the melodrama of sensation fiction and the fog and doom of Victorian England so Jane and Prudence has been ‘just the thing’ as the eponymous Jane would say.

I laughed out loud several times reading this which is always a promising sign; rather embarrassing when on public transport but when it comes to scenes like this, it simply can’t be helped:

‘A tall man, rather grandly dressed for his function, Jane thought, came up to her.
“Can I help you, madam?” he asked quietly.
“Well now, I wonder if you could,” said Jane.
“I shall certainly endeavour to, Madam,” said the man gravely.
“The point is this. How can a clergyman’s wife afford to buy foie gras?”
“It would seem to be difficult,” said the man respectfully. “Let us see now.” He took a card down from the stand. ” The smallest size is fourteen and ninepence.”
“Yes,” said Jane. “I saw that. But I shouldn’t really want the smallest size. Those large decorated jars have taken my fancy.”
“Ah, madam, those are one hundred and seventeen shillings,” said the salesman, rolling the words around his tongue.
“Well I’m sorry to have wasted your time like this,” said Jane, moving away. “I should like to have bought some.” ‘

The above quote gives some idea of Jane Cleveland’s character; she is a middle aged clergyman’s wife, married shortly after leaving Oxford, where she read English. She only has one daughter and is a comical failure at all housewifely tasks; a born romantic, made even more so by her studies of the romantic poets, she has a highly unsuitable Marvellian quote for every situation and fancies herself as a bit of an Emma Woodhouse. Irrepressibly cheerful, totally disregarding of her personal appearance, and harbouring a deep love, mixed with occassional bouts of exasperation, for her husband Nicholas, she busies herself in the affairs of the parish while dreaming of higher things. Her good friend Prudence, a few years younger at 29, is a glamorous, fading beauty who despite many love affairs has never managed to settle down. She lives in London where she works as a secretary to a dull writer, Arthur Grampian, whom she has an unrequited passion for. Jane is anxious to see Prudence married and ‘settled’, and invites her down frequently to the countryside parish to meet some eligible males, amongst whom are the Honourable Member, Edward Lyall, the dashing widower Fabian Driver, and the pale and interesting Mr Oliver. Prudence, who is growing tired of her spinster status, begins a half hearted love affair with Fabian, but it isn’t long before a spanner is thrown into the works, much to the distress of all involved.

The majority of the action is set in the countryside parish where Jane, Nicholas, and their motley crew of parishioners, including the token spinster, her companion, two lady widowers and some other characters live, always ready to stick their noses in where they aren’t wanted, provide gossip or make themselves useful in some way. There is a constant quarrel between those who attend Nicholas’ church and Father Lomax’s, a high Anglican church bordering on Catholicism; Rome is considered a fate worse than death and anyone crossing the divide is cast from the good opinion of the other villagers. Prudence’s life in her comfortable flat and almongst the spinsters in her office is also well described, giving a good insight into the life of a single woman in the 50s and also how office ettiquette has changed; if only I had someone to make my tea for me and call me ‘Miss’ at work!

What I loved about this was its cosiness, and its gentle, truthful hilarity; it is set in the early 50’s, from what I can tell, and it is based on a world that has long gone. The Clevelands have a lady ‘to do’ for them; their parish is serviced by well meaning spinster ladies with no other interests. Life revolves around Parish Council Meetings and trips to Town; whist drives and jumble sales. For Prudence, in her ultra modern centrally heated flat, life is a round of dinners and cinema trips, as well as the hours she spends in the dull office, surrounded by spinsters and young girls, who fret about making Nescafe just right and their ‘young men’. The speech and actions of the characters are so wonderfully period; wondering whether their clothes are ‘quite the thing’ or whether it is acceptable to have tea rather than coffee after dinner…all delightful details that really transport you back to the time.

It is a wonderfully light hearted and funny novel, but at the same time there is an undertone of frustration and disillusionment; though neither Jane nor Prudence are unhappy, there is a sense that somehow life never turned out to be what they had dreamed as undergraduates all those years ago. It is this truthfulness, and the joy that can be taken in the small banal details of life, that makes Barbara Pym’s style so timeless and relevant to read; while the speech and settings have changed, the way we think and dream hasn’t, and it was comforting to find that I am not the only one who thinks up not quite appropriate literary quotes to describe situations I find myself in! Highly recommended, though not quite in the league of Jane Austen, as Philip Larkin would argue. I have also grown to like the slightly chick lit cover – if it encourages people to pick it up, then I am happy.

Also, went to a talk tonight with Bloomsbury Bell at Foyle’s about New York Review Books Classics; all about how we define classics and what is a classic. Virago got mentioned a few times; Mary Beard, who was on the panel, said ‘Virago published what were just essentially Carmen Callil’s bedtime reading.’ I couldn’t quite gather whether this was meant to be a positive comment or not. It was a very fascinating talk though and the conclusion was that nobody really knows what a classic is and it probably doesn’t matter anyway, as classics are being redefined constantly. Do I think Jane and Prudence is worthy of being entitled a ‘Virago Modern Classic’? Yes indeed, if you take classic to mean worth being read again, which I do.

Opposite Foyle’s is Border’s; now closing down and resembling a free for all jumble sale playing Ant and Dec music very loudly; no joke; ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rumble’ was playing tonight. I think it was the poor staff’s revenge on the book buying vultures who have appeared out of nowhere to take advantage of Border’s insolvency. I do hope they are not made redundant before Christmas. Personally I didn’t think the discounts were even that good; at 20% off all stock it’s still cheaper to buy on Amazon. Which is probably why Borders has gone bust in the first place.


  1. The Literary Stew says:

    I read Jane & Prudence earlier this year and really enjoyed it! She is brilliant. That talk you attended sounds so interesting. Wish I could have joined.

  2. makedoandread says:

    Jane and Prudence was my first Pym, as well. It hooked me from the start, and now I snatch up Pyms wherever I can find them. There's something very soothing about visiting the worlds she creates, even while knowing how constrained or disappointed some of her female characters feel in them, and about the way she writes friendships between women. I'm a huge fan of the New York Review Classic books (and, for that matter, the New York Review!), and I wish I could have heard that discussion.

  3. verity says:

    OOh, I'm so glad you've got Pym out 🙂 Pym is definitely one of my favourite authors.That talk at Foyles sounds fascinating *envious*

  4. savidgereads says:

    Oooh I have just got this recently from the library so am very very excited about this one now sounds delightful. I love village based books with wonderful female characters so this sounds like it will be a dream to read!I find it quite sad that that particular Borders is closing as when I was in my old book group we would all go there together to buy the next one!

  5. JoAnn says:

    What a nice change of pace after reading Victorian sensation! Quartet in Autumn is the only Pym I've read, but have recently purchased Excellent Women. Jane and Prudence sounds wonderful.

  6. Sophie says:

    I discovered Pym earlier this year, and love her. So far I've read Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, and Crampton Hodnet, but Jane and Prudence is one I've seen in the bookshop and nearly bought several times. Next time I think it will definitely be coming home with me! You're right about the wonderful combination of comedy and sadness in her books. It's all so subtly done.

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  8. Eva says:

    This sounds lovely! When I first saw your post in my reader and just read the title, I thought "Oh dear, not another Austen sequel thing." So I'm relieved to hear that this isn't, and I've been meaning to try Pym for awhile now.

  9. Darlene says:

    I absolutely adore Barbara Pym novels and the way that I read them…with a smile on my face. The etiquette of the day certainly causes me to wish that we could go back to a time when people were more mindful of such things! I haven't read Jane and Prudence yet, you have to spread these treasures out and make them last. Clear some space on your bookshelf for more Pym, Rachel.The talk at Foyle's would have been a thought-provoking one and you had lovely company!

  10. jennysbooks says:

    I read Excellent Women earlier this year, and shortly afterward my friend sent me two others of Pym's books. They are sitting most temptingly on the shelves, and I'm trying to decide whether to read them or save them for the holidays. They seem like good wintery books.

  11. Bloomsbury Bell says:

    I am still traumatized by "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" – anyway, Jane & Prudence sounds like it is absolutely my cup of tea – cannot believe I have never read Pym. I even drove by her cottage in a beautiful Oxfordshire village the other weekend – it has a plaque on, that's how I knew. Very excited as this is going on my "Christmas-hols-in-sussex" reading list.

  12. Aarti says:

    I've never even heard of these books! I'm so glad to see you reviewing them so they're on my radar. And what a lovely cover, too 🙂

  13. Thomas at My Porch says:

    Welcome to the world of Pym. She certainly does satisfy.The discussion at Foyle's about classics would have been fascinating. I certainly prefer Virago over NYRB editions. I almost always like the former, and am surprised when I like the latter.

  14. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    Literary Stew – Isn't she? Glad you enjoyed this one too. I can't wait to read more!Makedo- I am going to be obsessively snatching up Pyms now too! They are such comforting reads. I haven't read any NYRBs yet but I am excited to discover some now – the editor in chief was on the panel and he is such an interesting man. He said he likes to take chances on books so some aren't as good as others, but sometimes taking a chance leads to a big success.Verity – I am so excited that there are so many more to discover!Simon – I hope you enjoy it! Yes it was a bit depressing – books strewn everywhere, stressed looking staff, etc. It was a mess. But not enough discount for me to buy anything as I said. I felt bad.JoAnn – Yes it was a really nice change of pace. I love reading something lighter after such a meaty read!Sophie – I hope you find Jane and Prudence soon! I know I'll be greedily snapping up any others I find! I'm glad you're another fan.Eva – How funny! No I am not a fan of such books either! You should try Pym very soon, I think you'll like her!Darlene – Yes I am going to! I long for more Pyms!Jenny – Yes they are nice winter books. Cosy and warming, perfect for snuggle under the cover reading!Naomi – Haha me too! Oooh I'd love to see her cottage. I think I shall be lending you this for your lovely country Christmas.Aarti – I hadn't until recently, either! She's quite a niche taste, I gather. Seek her out beause she is so worth reading!Thomas – She does indeed! Yes the NYRB books look a bit hit and miss – with Virago I know where I am but NYRB books strike me as a bit more of a gamble.

  15. Leticia says:

    I read Excellent Women a few months ago after a friend recommended it and really liked it… after your review I'll be sure to look for Jane an Prudence as my next Pym book!

  16. Desperate Reader says:

    I love Pyms world of spinsters and clergymen who take advantage, I think she must have had a wicked sense of humour, I would also be intersted to know how Virago pick their books, I loke the way the modern classics have evolved over the last few years.

  17. anothercookiecrumbles says:

    I recently picked up a book by Pym, which I'm still to get 'round to. I have no idea as to how it ranks amidst Pym fans (No Fond Return of Love), but the title intrigued me a little. Glad you enjoyed this, and now, I can't wait to get cracking on the Pym I have.

  18. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    Leticia – I have heard Excellent Women is brilliant – I want to read that next I think. I hope you like Jane and Prudence!Desperate Reader – I think Pym certainly viewed the world with a lot of humour!!! Yes I would too, and Persephone…what came out of the discussion at Foyle's is that everyone judges what a classic is differently, so it's quite hard to choose a list of so called 'classics' when everyone's reference points are different!Anothercookie – No Fond Return of Love is one of her later ones I think? I hope you like it – make sure you review it for us all!

  19. bookishnyc says:

    I'm a bit late to the Pym party here, but I just wanted to add how very much I have come to love her books — particularly this one and Excellent Women. Now, let me go see if I can find someone in my office to make me a cup of tea and bring me a biscuit. I expect my secretary would look at me blankly if I dared make such a request. LOL!

  20. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    BookishNYC- So glad you love Pym too! Oh gosh…at least you HAVE a secretary!

  21. Larry Heliotrope says:

    I'd recommend Pym's Quartet In Autumn – the only one of hers I've read, and possibly quite different from most of her work (it's one of her last books). It's simultaneously hilarious and bleak in a way matched only by Patrick Hamilton (who, if you've not discovered him yet, I think you might appreciate.)

  22. bingley says:

    Hi, I’ve been a Barbara Pym fan since the late 1980s when I was living in Surabaya and for some reason she was just about the only English-language author the local bookshops had. Reading Barbara Pym in public is dangerous — one has to continually fight down the urge to buttonhole people and read bits out loud to them.

    I must admit I don’t like the cover you posted. Mine has a small bouquet of flowers:

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