Vulpes Libris

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.

Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Jane 1I’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.

jane 2The 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.

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

7 comments on “Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence

  1. Penny Swan
    June 1, 2016

    I do love Pym – thankyou for articulating why this novel is unsatisfying. I recall it more as a series of episodes than a coherent story, and I think you have pinpointed exactly why.
    My favourite part is when Prudence is in the tea shop, hoping that someone will wonder who she is, fascinatingly reading Coventry Patmore. (I looked him up – dreadful!) Oh, and Jane explaining that “My husband can’t take toad.”

  2. Kate
    June 1, 2016

    Yes, the toad comment is lovely (I personally like toad very much). And Mr Manifold is so dismissive of Coventry Patmore, his reaction almost counts as a Pym iteration of the Regency buck, if you see what I mean. Because he is dismissive of her reading choice, he’s showing that he knows her so well, so something like that.

  3. ninevoices
    June 1, 2016

    I can hardly bear to find any fault in Barbara Pym! I wonder if the looser technique and occasional untidiness in Jane and Prudence reflect (in a comforting and satisfying way) the flickering, episodic nature of life…a succession of ‘moments’ not massaged into the narrative arc that creative writing tutors go on about!

  4. Louise
    June 1, 2016

    prudence isn’t lonely, she enjoys her love affairs. And i think jane is plausible – she isn’t a competent vicar’s wife and never will be. she simply isn’t interested in being one. i think it is a delightful novel, not unsatisfying at all.

  5. Hilary
    June 4, 2016

    Thank you, Kate. Forensic stuff! I’ve never stopped to wonder why I’ve found Jane And Prudence one of the less satisfying of Barbara Pym’s novels. If pressed, I’d have said that I’ve never found Fabian Driver a satisfying creation, so shallow, and am faintly repealed by the idea that Prudence should even take an interest (although there is pathos in that). And his being, as we used to say where I come from, ‘cut and carried’ by Jessie Morrow is too close to farce for my particular taste. Alongside that it seems to pre-figure the almost unbearably sad Quartet In Autumn in its portrayal of the banalities and tiny tragedies of office life, something that over my working life became sometimes too true to be funny. So there is that unevenness of tone and purpose which, I am sure you are right, a good edit could have made a triumph of technique rather than something that doesn’t perfectly hang together.

    There isn’t a wholly satisfactory synthesis between Jane and Prudence, or Jane’s world and Prudence’s world, and I’m grateful to you for pointing that out. Jane’s world is really just the place where some of Prudence’s story takes place. I love Jane and Nicholas, Flora too, and should have loved to read ‘their’ novel.

  6. Michelle Ann
    June 6, 2016

    I enjoyed Jane and Prudence, although it is some time since I read it. I think Barbara Pym never really got past the gauche schoolgirl stage of love, and preferred to have unrequited crushes on men, and was a little lost when they became physical relationships. I think Barbara Bird in Crampton Hodnet was probably an autobiographical portrait. She’s very good and funny at pinpointing the habits of spinsters and foibles of men, but many of the romantic relationships she portrays seem rather stilted.

  7. Pingback: Barbara Pym, An Unsuitable Attachment – Kate Macdonald

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