Saturday, June 8, 2013
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
Reading a Barbara Pym novel is like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day (or any day, really). They are the ultimate comfort read. Not too long, nor too difficult, yet full of wit, sly humor, and great characters. Jane and Prudence is my fifth Barbara Pym novel, and once again, Pym delivers.
Basically, this is a year or so in the life of two friends. Jane is a fortyish clergyman's wife, with a single child nearing adulthood. She once tutored at Oxford, and her former student, Prudence, is in her late twenties, and nearing spinisterhood, though she's very attractive and has had lots of romances. Prudence works in a London office for some sort of academic and secretly loves her boss from afar. Jane's husband has recently taken up a new post in the country, and they're settling in. Jane meets all the people in the village, including busybodies, paid companions, and attractive widower named Fabian who might just do for Prudence.
Meanwhile, Jane's daughter Flora is off to Oxford for her first semester. Like most Pym novels, not much happens, yet many small things happen. We learn the tiny details of life in the fifties, about what sort of flowers are appropriate for a Harvest festival to what sort of hats all the women wear, and, naturally, what everyone eats. Eyebrows are raised in the village since Jane can't cook her way out of a paper bag, yet nobody expects Fabian to pick up a frying pan and fend for himself. Prudence and Jane make various visits back and forth between London and the village parish, and Prudence becomes involved in a romance. Will this finally result in marriage? Naturally, the course of true love does not run smoothly.
Pym's dialogue and wry observations are once again peppered with wry observations. For example, she describes a book that Prudence is reading as "a novel of the kind that Prudence enjoyed, well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life." Zing! It's lines like this that Pym so great. Very subtle and sly, but carefully observant. I especially loved the interplay between the Prudence and her co-workers, who seem obsessed with what time everyone arrives and leaves the office, and whose responsibility it is to make the tea. For those who have read Excellent Women, there's even a mention of Mildred Lathbury.
Now I have read about 40% of Pym's oeuvre and I am dreading the day when I have finished all of them. I've read two this past week, and two over the Christmas holiday. I have several more unread on the shelf but I'm going to have to ration them out so I don't finish them all too quickly.
I've been trying to think of other authors that might be similar. Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress, the writer) comes to mind, and maybe Anita Brookner. And of course, my beloved Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. Who else writes like Barbara Pym? What shall I read when I've finished all her books? And which of her novels are your favorites?
Thanks again for Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle for organizing Barbara Pym Reading Week!