This is the latest read in the Libraything Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long – another re-read for me, but no less of a pleasure for that. Back in familiar territory with clergymen, spinsters and academics, there is also plenty of Pym’s wonderful wry observances and sharp humour. Pym’s world is very English, wonderfully nostalgic, even for those of us born long after such a world ended.
“I love Evensong. There’s something sad and essentially English about it.”
Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates first knew one another at Oxford, Jane some years older than Prudence had once been her tutor. Now Jane is married to Nicholas an Anglian clergyman and has a daughter also bound for Oxford. Prudence, however an attractive twenty nine year old is still a spinster. Jane and her family move to a new country parish, where Jane with her odd clothes and her wry view of life has to play a part she feels vaguely unequal to. Her husband’s predecessor and his wife were revered and respected, and Nicholas putting his funny little animal shaped soaps in the downstairs cloakroom feels himself to be viewed as a lesser cleric. Jane sees local widower Fabian Driver as a possible romantic interest for her friend Prudence.
Prudence living alone in London, and working as an assistant to Dr Grampian, for whom she has nursed secret tender feelings, is invited to stay in the new vicarage – a whist drive a somewhat dubious incentive. However Prudence does harbour secret hopes of the eligible widower who she realises Jane is planning to introduce her to.
“For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.”
The community, into which the Clevelands have moved, is that of a typical English village in the years after the Second World War, the concerns of the villagers mainly parochial. There is more than one church – Nicholas is in completion with the high Anglicans the Roman Catholics and the Methodists.
“He walked slowly down the main street, past the collection of old and new buildings that lined it. The Parish Church and the vicarage were at the other end of the village. Here he came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity. Even if truth were to be found there. A little further on, though, as was fitting, on the opposite side of the road, was the little tin hut which served as a place of worship for the Roman Catholics. Fabian knew Father Kinsella, a good-looking Irishman, who often came into the bar of the Golden Lion for a drink. He had even though of going to his church once or twice, but somehow it had never come to anything. The makeshift character of the building, the certain discomfort that he would find within, the plaster images in execrable taste, the simplicity of Father Kinsella’s sermons intended only for a congregation of Irish labourers and servant-girls–all these kept him away. The glamour of Rome was obviously not there.”
Also resident in the village is Miss Doggett and her companion the sharp tonged Miss Jessie Morrow, who has also turned her spinster’s eye upon the handsome face of womaniser Fabian. Jane Cleveland finds herself thrust into a small world of petty squabbles and small domestic affairs. The villagers particularly revere Edward Lyall – rather hilariously described as “the beloved Member”, who has perfected the art of making an entrance. Meanwhile back in London Prudence shares an office with Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, who discuss at length the time they arrived for work, and the state of the morning tea. Prudence finds herself irritated by her colleague Mr Manifold who keeps a tin of Nescafe locked in his desk drawer – and sometimes rather rudely calls her Prudence! It is these wonderfully sharp vignettes of English 1950’s life that Barbara Pym is so wonderful at.
Incidentally there is a tantalising glimpse from afar of Mildred Lathbury and Everard Bone – from ‘Excellent Women’ – all of which only helps somehow, to make Pym’s world seem all the more real.
My edition of Jane and Prudence is the very attractive Moyer Bell edition. I have a couple of other Pym novels in this edition, and will look out for more as I think they are lovely, but are now quite hard to get cheaply. As much as I love Virago – I have to admit to not much liking the latest covers – they make the novels look frothy and frivolous and I think take something away from the brilliance of the writing.