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Jane and Prudence
Barbara Pym
Virago

“A man is often judged by his wife.”

I wouldn’t have thought that this was my kind of book, but it was recommended to me by someone who thought my own writing was rather like Barbara Pym’s. To be honest, I think it is more that we both write about Vicars, as it is certainly a flattering comparison.

I’m no stranger to the Church of England and its peculiarities as I used to work in a Parish Office, so Pym’s world of parishioners and PCC meetings is familiar ground for me.

The story focuses on a friendship between vicar’s wife, Jane, and her ‘spinster’ friend, Prudence, who met at university. Jane studied English Literature, particularly the metaphysical poets, and so this is woven through the novel and takes it beyond the usual examination of friendships, marriage and village life.

It seems to be set in the late forties or early fifties as the Second World War is over, but rationing is still in place, which makes it interesting from a social-historical point of view. Particularly as Pym is fixated on mealtimes and middle class manners.

Pym’s writing is very witty, and the novel is also unintentionally funny, due to its outmoded attitudes. Women are often proclaiming that ‘men need meat’ or ‘men are only after one thing’ and Prudence, who is only about thirty, is seen as over the hill, on the shelf, or some such quaint thing.

Barbara Pym never married and there does seem to be a vein of scepticism running through this novel where marriage is concerned. Indeed, there’s a sense of disappointment regarding relationships between men and women, that’s almost proto-Feminist.  That marriage involves sacrifice and a loss of self for many women, who are forced to curtail their own interests or careers in order to be a supportive spouse, is dealt with here with a sense of sadness.

Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m a huge Barbara Pym fan after reading this, although I can see why Philip Larkin voted her the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century, as there is more to her writing than meets the eye.  She has an incisive wit and observation style akin to that of Jane Austen and I will certainly make a point of reading more of her work.

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