A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ve read Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence several times. I got rid of my copy four years ago by making a present of it to a friend, because I thought it deserved a more appreciative reader than me. I regretted doing this, of course, some weeks ago, when I was rereading A Glass of Blessings and discovered that Wilmet’s husband Rodney had attempted to have an affair with Prudence in her Regent’s Park flat with the uncomfortable Regency-striped sofa. I bought another copy of the edition that I gave away.
I’m still not satisfied, but I like the novel better now than I did before. The first time I read it I thought (so says my reading diary) ‘Peculiar. Very badly written.’ The second time around I found it ‘funnier, and more wicked, but also irritating’. I was complaining then about how Pym wrote the novel, rather than the novel itself, and that’s still the problem for me. It’s an excellent story – thirtyish Prudence Bates is elegant, fastidious and lonely. She is an assistant to an eminent man, with whom she thinks she is in love for want of anyone else in her life. She goes to stay with her former tutor Jane, a vicar’s wife in a new country parish, and meets the recently widowed Fabian Driver, with whom Prudence begins an affair. Meanwhile, Fabian’s neighbour, Miss Doggett’s mousey companion Jessie Morrow, decides that since the glamorous interloper Prudence looks likely to steal the indecisive and easily flattered Fabian from her, Jessie had better do something to take control of the situation.
Since Jane is incidental to this plot, yet is a leading protagonist, I think that Pym was trying to fit two plots into one novel here: the travails of Prudence’s love life, and Jane’s encounters with her husband’s new parishioners and their peculiar ways. The contortions of narrative that Pym struggles with to get both plots to fit into one novel are painfully apparent, in the repetitions, abrupt changes of tone, erratic character depictions and implausible behaviour. Both plots would have worked much better had they been written separately, and I do so wish that Pym had done that.
The forceful and eccentric Jane simply doesn’t work as a foil to Prudence. She is plausible as Prudence’s former tutor, since she still hankers to publish something – anything – on the seventeenth-century English poets, but she is completely implausible as a vicar’s wife of twenty years’ experience, and the latter role is the most important one for her setting in the village. Jessie Morrow first appears as a tolerant bullied companion, then we see her suddenly slinking into Fabian’s arms in full make-up and scent, knowing perfectly well how to get and hold a man. This doesn’t feel coordinated at all, even if Jessie is supposed to be a demure dark horse. There are far too many focalising voices, since we move from inside Prudence’s head to look into Jane’s, then a brief glimpse from Jane’s daughter Flora’s perspective, then into Fabian’s mind, possibly also a zip through Mrs Glaze’s point of view, and finally we are hearing Jessie’s thoughts and motivations. It’s simply too much: so many voices produce a disjointed feeling of cacophony, and we don’t know whose perspective to trust. The passage of time is also unevenly signalled, so that, for instance, in one paragraph we move through one course of a meal and out onto the pavement for the duration of a single sentence uttered by one of the characters.
The failures in technique are unsatisfactory, rather than Pym’s invention. However, Jane and Prudence was Pym’s third published novel (1953), and the eighth one that she wrote. It post-dates her acknowledged classic Excellent Women, but predates A Glass Of Blessings, which I think is her most accomplished. She had had plenty of practice in writing, and had a firm grip on her subject – the lives and loves of single English gentlewomen with Anglican leanings in the 1950s – that no-one else has ever mastered. But somehow with this novel she didn’t wasn’t able to make it all gel together.
There are many superb moments. Prudence has a subtly affirmative role, suffering in love, but still making herself good and beautifully presented meals, dressing in glorious clothes and finding someone who will surprise her out of her airs and pretentions. (No mention is made of Rodney.) She shares her office with Miss Trapnell and Miss Clothier, whose daily conversations about when they arrived in the office and when they will leave, their lunchtime and teatime arrangements, their anxiety over the correct time and manner of making tea, and their rigid devotion to unspecified card index work, are a hymn of affectionate derision for similar ladies who populate nearly all of Pym’s novels. No man is spared Pym’s piercing assessment of character from their actions: Fabian’s affected poses and lack of self-control, Mr Oliver’s squabble with Mr Morpeth over the cover of the parish magazine, Dr Grampian’s disregard for Prudence’s existence except when he feels like a like extra-marital flirtation, even Mr Manifold’s unfortunate plaid shirt and his appalling taste in puddings. The mildly dotty Rev. Nicholas Cleveland experiments with growing his own tobacco: the scene in the kitchen when a visitor encounters the vicar and Jane madly bottling plums while ducking under the festoons of flapping leaves hanging up to dry, is one of the funniest in the novel. When the vicarage cook Mrs Glaze announces that Mr Fabian will be having a casserole of hearts for his dinner, Jane imagines them to have come from the victims of his many marital affairs. It’s visceral details like these that make Barbara Pym such a tremendous novelist. A good editor should have sorted out her technique.