Book Club: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
Anticipation was intense for this offering (despite the hideous cover given to the reprint), as Pym was revered by both Larkin and Jilly Cooper – the bookends of many a reader’s very existence. The majority of our membership are absolute suckers for an archaic, eccentric English novel and you would have thought that Crome Yellow would have kept us going for at least a few months, but no. We had to have more of characters who ask themselves questions such as “Could one love an Arthur?”
Jane and Prudence met while the latter was an undergraduate at Oxford. Their friendship survived Jane’s marriage to a vicar, and the novel opens when her move to a country vicarage isolates her more completely from Prudence’s more self-contained life in London. Prudence prides herself on her appearance and her unrequited passion for her employer. She works in a ‘vague cultural organization’ with two harpies who she runs the risk of becoming and uses alcohol in the evening as a prop for her existence. She has a chaste affair with a vain widower in Jane’s village: Fabian Driver initially shows such promise, wearing a ‘carefully casual tweed suit’ and leaving a photo of himself on his wife’s grave before describing the “oppressive presence of three not particularly attractive women at his table”. However, the appeal fades, for us and for Jane.
Fabian is snapped up by Miss Doggett, the germination taking place in the following harvest festival scene which precedes the Carry On franchise by five years:
“What a fine marrow, Mr Driver,” said Miss Doggett in a bright tone. “It is the biggest one we have had so far, isn’t it, Miss Morrow?”
Miss Morrow, who was scrabbling on the floor among the vegetables, mumbled something inaudible.
“It is magnificent,” said Mrs Mayhew reverently.
It is for incredible mortifying moments like these that we all ended up hoarding; the minutiae of post-war life that incorporates jumble for Distressed Gentlewomen, a baffling obsession with curtains, and of course food, illustrated wonderfully by this exchange between Jane and her husband:
“Couldn’t we open a tin or something?”
“A tin of what? That’s the point”
“Oh, meat of some kind. Spam or whatever you call it”
“But, darling, there isn’t Spam any more. It came from America during the war and we don’t get it now.”
The couple end up eating at the village’s place to be seen, the Spinning Wheel, blinking like owls. Jane is the star of the tale – married as she is to a Mr Bennett figure, the story arguably lacks a Knightley – as she vaguely navigates whist drives, motherhood, tea parties and theology. She is full of good advice, providing comfort for Prudence in her donnish way: “It sounds rather restful in a way, said Jane, doing the best she could, “ to have a negative relationship with somebody,” as well as commenting on how easy it is to fall in love, “Some hollow in the temple, or a square inch of flesh on the wrist, that’s all it need be, really…..” The most glorious Jane moment comes after the male characters have finished sighing with ennui and bemoaning how exhausting they find life to be, “A gloom seems to have fallen on the party,” said Jane. “Perhaps it would be better if we all sat in silence. If the men find life so exhausting, our chatter might disturb them.” She has a huge amount of appeal, a bright if vague presence in a rationed, dingy gloom.
To sum up: Prudence is awful, a look to avoid for anyone employed – however remotely – in the arts, and Jane’s hamlet existence at moments summed up a vision of a rural Britain that I hope still exists somewhere, free of Spam.
You can download Jane And Prudence here.