I had read Barbara Pym some years ago (not sure which one, it may have been “Excellent Women”?) and although I remember liking it, felt it was very mild. And then I read “Jane and Prudence”.
For some reason this book really absorbed my interest (and why is that? sometimes a book just happens to hit the spot just at the right time.) At first, it was a little slow-moving for me but once I began to delve into the lives of the characters I found it to be a fast read and so entertaining!
Jane is a thoroughly incompetent vicar’s wife who doesn’t seem to mind that she can’t seem to get her act together. It took me a while but I began to really like Jane! She is fresh, unassuming and yet forthright in her opinions, and isn’t too concerned or caught up in outward appearances: “Jane put on an old tweed coat which hung in the hall – the kind of coat one might have used for feeding the chickens in – and they went out together.”
Prudence Bates, Jane’s good friend from university days, is one of the few of their circle left ‘on the shelf’, and Jane decides she must ‘help’ Prudence find a satisfactory husband. (Shades of “Emma” and Jane Austen? probably. )
“There’s Miss Morrow and Fabian Driver – I think I told you about him in my letter.’ Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.”
There are little vignettes of village affairs, afternoon tea, and tense meetings of the Parochial Council where the most difficult item on the agenda (and the one most discussed) seems to be which photo to put on the cover of the parish magazine. Insightful human perplexities and frailties are scattered throughout, with amusing commentaries (mostly from Jane) that hold the reader’s interest. (There are times when even the reader is unsure whether Jane realizes that her comments are meant to be taken seriously!)
Whether Prudence ultimately will contentment and fulfillment in her (dull) office job, or succeed at snaring the elusive and hopefully-reformed Fabian Driver, is not revealed until the final few chapters.
“She told me a good deal about Mr. Driver,’ said Jane. ‘About his wife and other things.’
“Ah, the other things,’ said Miss Doggett obscurely. ‘Of course, we never saw anything of those. We knew that it went on, of course – in London, I believe.’
‘Yes, it seems suitable that things like that should go on in London,’ Jane agreed. ‘It is in better taste somehow that a man should be unfaithful to his wife away from home.’