It's been nearly two weeks since I finished Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym and I've been dragging my feet about blogging about it ever since, not because I didn't love the book, but because I can't think of much to say about it that isn't just a glowing reiteration of the warmth and wit of Pym's writing. I liked it so much that--just like with novels by Jane Austen, to whom Pym is often compared--I don't want to impinge on my pure enjoyment of them by thinking too critically about things like theme or character development. So instead of any groundbreaking insights, you'll have to settle for a quick description of the main characters and one of my favorite moments from the novel.
Jane and Prudence are a pair of intelligent, well educated women who met at Oxford when Prudence, a student, was tutored by Jane, a slightly older graduate, and have kept up their friendship ever since. When we meet them in the novel, Jane is married to a vicar and has a grown daughter just starting her own first year at Oxford. Prudence, now 29, lives in London, working as a research assistant to an academic and flitting from one misguided romance to another. It can be argued that neither one is especially well served by her lofty education in her current life. Prudence's dull job only interests her as a means of spending time in the vicinity of a boss with whom she fancies herself to be in love. Her stylish appearance, her cozy apartment, and her ability to entertain are greater sources of pride and importance in her life. Jane, for her part, couldn't be more unsuited for the role of a vicar's wife. Dreamy, given to flights of imagination, and slightly socially awkward, Jane is more likely to be seen quoting the poets she studied as a student than fitting into the activities of her husband's parish. A series of minor but engrossing dramas ensue when both women make attempts to find an ideal husband for Prudence.
Now, for the favorite moment I alluded to, which is actually a scene that has no direct bearing on either Jane or Prudence, but refers back to some characters from Excellent Women. In that novel, the ultimate fate of main character Mildred Lathbury is left slightly open to interpretation. During one scene in Jane and Prudence, an acquaintance of Jane's recounts the gossip from a letter she's received. She asks Jane something along the lines of, "And remember So-and-So's sweet little friend Miss Lathbury?", and then proceeds to give news of Mildred that clears up any lingering questions from Excellent Women. I was so delighted when I discovered that Pym had her novels talking to each other in this way. Although I've only read three of her works so far, I'm starting to suspect that collectively they're the literary equivalent of a small English village, with familiar faces popping up where you least expect them. Because of this, I've decided to read the rest of her novels in the order in which they were written, which means that Civil to Strangers will have to be next on my list.
P.S. Pym fans- has anyone heard anything about this Barbara Pym cookbook?