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.