Jane and Prudence

There's something quietly lovely about a Barbara Pym novel. It's a perfect rainy day read, as you imagine yourself in England... if you have a large chintz armchair, all the better. And while I don't think you need to adore Jane Austen in order to enjoy Barbara Pym, it probably helps, though there's something a little darker and more melancholy in Pym.

Jane and Prudence unsurprisingly deals with two Englishwomen named Jane and Prudence. (As a result, I was singing "Dear Prudence" over the three or four days where I was reading this.) Jane is a minister's wife who is a bit older than Prudence; the two met when Jane was her tutor at Oxford and their unlikely friendship stuck. Jane's husband has just taken over a country parish and Jane is more than usually aware of the fact that she's not a particularly good clergyman's wife. Nevertheless, they move into this parish with their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora (who is about to head up to Oxford herself), and settle in to meet the locals and navigate the intricacies of a small country town. Prudence, meanwhile, lives in London; she's unmarried and while she is employed, she is not absorbed in academic work, which often leads the older women of their college back at Oxford to be at a loss for fitting Prudence into a particularly neat category, though Jane might say that she might not have her work, but "Prudence has her love affairs." And for the time, it does seem that Prudence has such a romantic nature as to be enjoying the attention of a man or fancying herself in love with another. Prudence's latest focus is her employer, a middle-aged man that does not seem particularly interested in her, beyond one day a while back when he used her Christian name and took her hand as they looked out a window. Jane (in a not-quite-focused way) tries to think of who might be suitable for Prudence in this new town.

Aside from scenes set at Prudence's office (where her spinster coworkers pay close attention to what time the tea should be brought in, and mild chatter about the two men in the office), the majority of the book is set in the country parish, where you have the usual assemblage of busybodies and village VIPs. As with all Pym novels, you're presented with women in a rather narrow life, struggling to find their niche or at least muddle through without one. It's highly representative of the post-war feeling of confusion that women of the age must have experienced as they balanced the desire to have work of their own just as they're expected to marry and start families. The intriguing thing, of course, is that it might not be exactly the same today, but it's easy to relate to the unsettled feelings as one tries to find a place in the world that feels like it fits.

It's easy to see why one might suggest Pym to those who enjoy Austen. Pym novels are, on the surface, easily summed up as novels about Englishwomen in the middle of the 20th century, often too smart for their surroundings, but without a means of focusing that intelligence as they become wives, mothers, or settle into their role as spinsters (for indeed, there is no real place for a single woman unless it is that of a spinster).

If you're looking for a quiet, lovely novel with some subtle social commentary and quite good character insight, then I suggest you try reading a Pym novel. The rainy afternoon and a tray with tea and scones are not required, but they certainly help set the scene.

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