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.