Jane and Prudence, Barbara Pym
This novel, published in 1953, combines two of Barbara Pym's familiar settings. The title characters met at Oxford, where Jane was Prudence's tutor. Despite the twelve-year gap in their ages, they became and remain friends. As the book opens, they are attending a Reunion of Old Students at the college (a setting that instantly evoked Gaudy Night for me). Their lives have taken different paths since those college days. Jane is married, with a daughter about to go up to Oxford in her turn. Her husband is a vicar, and they are preparing to move from their suburban parish to one in a small country town. Prudence on the other hand lives in London, in an elegant flat with Regency-style furniture. She has fallen in and out of love many times over the years - Jane thinks that her affairs "were surely as much an occupation as anything else." The current object of her devotion is her married boss, Dr. Grampian, who writes learned books (about economics or history; we are never told which exactly). Prudence is part of the office staff who assist in the research and publication of his books, though like the office in Quartet in Autumn, it is never clear what anyone actually does there.
The story moves back and forth between Jane in the country and Prudence in the city, and the occasional visits they exchange. Jane is settling into the new parish, where she doesn't quite fit. She is warm-hearted and friendly, interested in people and sympathetic. But she is an unconventional vicar's wife: a poor housekeeper, badly dressed, uninterested in parish work, given to saying whatever crosses her mind without considering her audience, and confusing people with random lines of poetry. I liked Jane very much, and it was painful to watch her flounder around, sticking her foot in her mouth, irritating even her long-suffering husband. It's especially endearing that she recognizes and humbly admits her own failings, though perhaps basing her ideas of a vicar's wife on the novels of Anthony Trollope and Charlotte M. Yonge set her up for disappointment from the start.
Jane is also determined to find Prudence a husband. Her first choice is a youngish man in the village, Fabian Driver, playing up his role as a widower after neglecting his wife while she was alive and carrying on affairs in London. I would have considered that a major red flag, but he is single and comfortably well off, which seems enough for Jane. She invites Prudence down for a visit, the two meet, and Prudence begins seeing Fabian both in London and the village. She transfers her affections from Dr. Grampian to Fabian, but they seem hardly any warmer, let alone the basis for a real relationship. Both Prudence and Fabian seem to be following a script for romance,
leading to suitable marriage, though in the end they aren't reading from
the same one. Prudence at 29 feels the pressure of social expectations, that women should marry and have children, set against her quiet flat and her independent life in the city. But then her work is not particularly interesting, particularly after she falls out of love with Dr. Grampian. I enjoyed the sections set in the offices, where Prudence feels herself rather superior to her co-workers, with their quiet gossip and constant clock-watching. She also feels herself in competition for Dr. Grampian's attention, particularly with the sole male on the staff, Geoffrey Manifold, a young man of her own age.
In the end, Prudence's story is left unresolved, in what I am coming to think a typical Pymian ending. However, we do learn the coda to an earlier story, with its own ambiguous ending, that of Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women. I was disappointed that we didn't get a cameo from Mildred herself, my favorite so far of Pym's characters; we only learn her news second-hand, through something Jane hears. It did make me wonder, though, if we might hear of Prudence especially in a later story. I'd like to think that Jane just continues on her own happily idiosyncratic way, malaprops and all. Instead of Trollope and Yonge, though, perhaps she should have read Dorothy L. Sayers' books, with their excellent vicars' wives, especially Mrs. Venables from The Nine Tailors. I do love characters who are readers. Prudence, whose last name is Bates, disavows any likeness to the Bates mother and daughter in Emma, though she seems to prefer modern novels, "well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life." I wonder whose books Barbara Pym had in mind when she wrote that!
I still have several of her books to read, but I don't want to rush through them, and I feel that I don't want to read too many at once, unlike say Angela Thirkell. Reading one Thirkell (or even someone else's review of Thirkell) always makes me want to pick up the next in the series. Perhaps that's because they are a series, though, unlike Pym's stand-alone novels. Speaking of Thirkell, I read a Moyer Bell edition of this novel, and I did not notice a single misprint or error, unlike those that plague their awful editions of Thirkell's novels, which proves they did have a copy-editor at one time.