Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

41 thoughts on “Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

  1. Tredynas Days

    Excellent piece, Jacqui. Her marginal, observing women characters are beautifully drawn; the men are preening egotists, complacently unheeding of the women, or something in between – it’s a bleak view of the patriarchy, but the women seem unable to stop falling for the most unsuitable types. I just looked again at my post on this novel, and find we concur on most points – but I feel I gave away too much of the plot. I’m a big fan of Jessie Morrow.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m totally with you on the self-effacing yet insightful nature of many of Pym’s heroines – they are so frequently marginalised by insensitive busybodies (for this read the likes of Miss Doggett and Agatha Hoccleve) or the most hopelessly blinkered of men. As you say, it’s infuriating to see them holding a candle for the likes of Arthur Grampian. There were times when I just wanted to shake Prudence and say: Stop putting yourself out for that man – he’s never going to appreciate you!

      I don’t think it matters that you revealed a little more about the denouement of J&P in your review. While plot does play a role in a Pym novel, it’s often secondary to other things – particularly the little insights we gain into the characters’ personalities along the way. It’s all about the details, I think.

      Oh and Jessie Morrow – what a dark horse she turned out to be. Although I do worry that she might not be happy in say four or five years’ time…

    2. Louise

      I don’t agree. NIcholas is not a preening egotist, he is a very nice, kind man, and very tolerant of Jane’s eccentricities. And Mr Manifold, who works in the office with Prudence, is very nice.

      1. JacquiWine Post author

        I must admit to having a bit of soft spot for Geoffrey Manifold too. While he comes across as a bit aloof and standoffish at first, he’s actually quite caring at heart. The fact that he reaches out to Prudence towards the end is a good indication of that.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, wonderful characterisation. And I like the fact that Prudence is a little different from some of the women in Pym’s other novels. She seems more independent and self-assured than say Mildred in Excellent Women or Belinda Bede in Some Tame Gazelle.

  2. Max Cairnduff

    Interesting to see characters recurring. Has Pym done that before?

    I do like these covers, but neither of those rather glamorous looking women look much like your description of Jane…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! No, I think we can safely say that neither of those illustrations represents Jane. It’s more a case of Prudence and Prudence than Jane and Prudence on the front cover.

      As for the recurring characters thing, I think this might be the first time I’ve encountered it in a Pym. Mind you, her novels do feel as though they might be set in the same community, so the re-appearance of certain individuals seems entirely natural. Interestingly, we also hear a little snippet of news about Mildred Lathbury which comes via a letter sent to one of the main characters in J&P. Lathbury is the central character in one of Pym’s most, Excellent Women, so it seems fitting to see a nod to her here.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lori. She clearly found a pattern that worked well in these ‘early’ novels before her wilderness years – they all seem to share a similar territory. I hope you get a chance to read this one soon – you’re sure to enjoy it.

  3. heavenali

    So glad you loved this one, it is definitely among my favourite Pym’s. I think Jane is just a fabulous character, but those peripheral characters are drawn just as well. All the men in this one, I seem to remember are a bit hopeless.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It was such a treat. Definitely up there with my favourite Pym’s although it’s getting quite hard to separate them on merit now – they’re all so good.

      Arthur Grampian is definitely a lost cause, and Fabian Driver has his limitations too. The only man who offers a rare glimmer of hope is the chap who works in Prudence’s office. His name escapes me right now, but he’s the one with his own tin of coffee – I’m sure you know who I mean! He comes across as a bit priggish at first, but underneath it all his heart seems to be in the right place.

  4. Caroline

    It sounds wonderful. I’m glad that at the end Prudence seems to have the more fulfilled life. That’s rather revolutionary for the times. I wasn’t aware that she describes clothes in so much detail. The descriptions obviously serve to illustrate other things.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s far from being all wine and roses for Prudence at the end, but there are a few glimmers of hope for the future – a sense that she might be entering a new, more fulfilling phase of her life now that she’s left the likes of Arthur Grampian behind.

      I think Simon has written something about the descriptions of clothes in some of Pym’s novels. It’s definitely one of her trademarks. As you say, the passages are there to illustrate other things – typically the character’s personality and their level of self-esteem. It’s very cleverly done – and rather witty with it.

      1. Caroline

        Now that you mention it, yes, I remember Simon’s post. In some ways, the women remind me of some of Anita Brookner’s characters but Pym is more gentle.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Pym does seem to have more sympathy for her characters than Brookner – or at least she draws them in a more sympathetic light. I haven’t read enough of Brookner to give a proper assessment of her work, but there are times when the author’s rage and anger seem very visible on the page – perhaps overly so?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi. I’ve been trying to read one every six months or so just to space them out a little bit. Luckily one of the local charity shops had a whole bunch of them a year or two ago, so I took the opportunity to stock up!

  5. Sarah

    I really loved the only Pym I’ve read thus far and this one not only sounds like a corker but I have a copy collecting dust on my shelves. Time to swap it into my 20 books of summer, methinks!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Bittersweet is a great word for Pym. On the surface of things, her novels can seem quite light and cuddly, but there’s often a seam of quiet tragedy running underneath…

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