Jane and Prudence

I’ve been trying to enhance my reading experiences by reading more books by authors I already enjoy, instead of continuing to try new authors. (New authors are great and all, but more of a risk. Maybe I need less risk these days.) So I’ve read my third Barbara Pym novel and enjoyed it a great deal (although Excellent Women will be hard to beat).

Jane and Prudence is the story of two close friends who got to know each other at Oxford but who’ve since gone their separate ways, visiting to catch up from time to time. Jane is in her 40s, married to a vicar and newly arrived at a country parish where she’s not sure she’ll fit in. Jane was briefly a tutor at Oxford, which is how she got to know Prudence, who is now almost 30, works as a writer’s assistant, and has had a string of unsuccessful relationships. Currently, she’s pining after her married employer, Dr. Grampian. For her part, Jane hopes to meet someone in her new village who will be suitable match for Prudence.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the characters all have opinions, sometimes strong ones, about other people’s lives, but, for the most part, they let them go ahead and do their thing. Maybe Jane doesn’t love that Prudence has entertained a local widower in her dressing gown, but that’s really Prudence’s business. And maybe Prudence thinks Jane doesn’t do enough to fix herself up, but that’s Jane’s business. They are there to listen to each other and offer support or help if it is clearly needed or requested. This way of being in relationship felt very real to me. And it does create some good moments of comedy to see people’s behaviors rub up against people’s opinions, especially when we know that the opinions aren’t likely to threaten the relationship.

And lest you think that this is a book about ladies judging each other, I want to be clear that both Jane and Prudence spend just as much time reflecting on their own choices as they do thinking about what others are doing. Jane worries continually about how to be a good clergy wife, and she is all too aware of how others may perceive her. She also wistfully thinks about her past as a scholar, wondering what might have been if she’d stayed on that path. It’s not that she’s unhappy. She just wonders if she could be more herself in a different life. This sense of ambivalence is something I thought Pym captured perfectly in Excellent Women, where the main character is uncertain about whether she ought to marry.

Prudence is similarly ambivalent, not necessarily about singleness vs marriage, but about the particular relationships she’s in. She’s not yet ready to settle down and accept spinsterhood, but she hasn’t found a suitable husband either. The one romantic relationship she has in the book is fine, not great, but not bad either. It’s not bad enough for her to want to end it, but not exciting enough for her to fight to preserve it. I think it’s more the idea of the relationship that she’s interested in. And that seems very true to life.

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5 Responses to Jane and Prudence

  1. Lory says:

    I went through a Pym phase this year and enjoyed them all. I’m missing a few more obscure ones that my library does not have but I hope I’ll track them down sometime. Reading authors one already enjoys is fair enough, I think … the trouble is that their books do eventually run out and one has to find more authors. Or start rereading.

  2. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This was the first Pym I ever read and I think I would like it more if I reread it: I am not sure I went into it with the right expectations. Your account of it makes it sound so good. Also, I feel you about risk: I tried and quit so many books in the past week or so! I remind myself that grabbing things at the library is not the *best* way to go: I just don’t enjoy leisurely browsing there right now (masks are hot!) so I get impatient. So I like the idea of following up on trusted authors.

  3. The concerns of the two main characters and the way they relate to each other sounds so relatable! You’re definitely making me want to try out some Pym. I also like your idea of reading more by authors you know you like though. I’m always reading the next shiny thing that catches my attention and I know there are many authors I love whose backlists I’d probably enjoy.

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