Home > 1950, 20th Century, Beach and Public Transports Books, British Literature, Novel, Pym Barbara > Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – meet Prudence, the Harriet spinster.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953) French tile: Jane et Prudence.

After reading Ravage, I needed to read something nice, clean and proper and turned to Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym.

Jane and Prudence met in Oxford when Jane tutored Prudence. Despite their age difference, they remained good friends. After Oxford, Jane married Nicholas, a clergyman. They have a daughter, Flora who’s going to Oxford in the fall. Prudence does editing and secretarial work for Arthur Grampian, a professor. When the book opens, Jane is about to move to a new parish in the countryside, near London.

Prudence is twenty-nine, lives in London in a flat and works to support herself. She’s unmarried but has had several admirers in the past. She cleans up well, is charming but never managed to find a husband. She has a crush on her boss, Arthur Grampian. Jane hopes that Prudence forgets about married Arthur Grampian and finds a suitable candidate in her new parish.

Jane and Nicholas move into their new vicarage and through Jane’s eyes, we see how they settle down in their new life. Jane used to research seventeenth-century poets but abandoned any attempt at a career when she married Nicholas. And now, she always feels like a failure even if Nicholas seems to love her the way she is.

Jane is not cut out for being a clergyman’s wife, of what she thinks a clergyman’s wife should be. She can’t cook, she never can say the right thing at the right time, she can’t be bothered with parish work and she’s not very religious.

They rose to their feet and bowed their heads. Jane tried very hard to realise the Presence of God in the vicarage drawing-room, but failed, as usual, hearing through the silence only Mrs Glaze running water in the back kitchen to wash up the supper things.

With Flora leaving the nest, Jane reflects on her marriage and the passing of time:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this was what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded into mild, kindly looks and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

I felt sorry for Jane and her lack of career. This is not the life she would have chosen for herself. No wonder she feels like a failure. However, she never loses her sense of humour:

‘I’ve been such a failure as a clergyman’s wife,’ Jane lamented, ‘but at least, I don’t drink; that’s the only suitable thing about me.’

She’s invested in Prudence’s future and sets her up with Fabian, widower in her parish. They start seeing each other and the two ladies hope for marriage…

Life at the vicarage has this sepia set of characters with churchgoers and goody-two shoes. It describes life in the early 1950s, the food restrictions have only come to an end. There are several mentions of how much men need meat and eggs, hinting that it’s still rare. (Jane tends to think women need them too and I agree with her on principle) Nicholas mentions a can of something and Jane replies that it’s American food and that it’s not available anymore, reminding us of the American food program for Europe after WWII.

Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of humour, as always. She describes all the little quibbles in the village, the gossip around the vicarage, the not-totally-sincere charity work and all the kind of village quirks you expect.

As in other books by Pym, she doesn’t praise married life too much. Prudence is 29 and, as one of her spinster friends points out, it’s time to make a choice: look for a husband (at any cost, I might say) or settle down as a contented and active spinster. Prudence is still undecided. Does she really want to be a wife and give up her independence? Pym describes Prudence’s life in London and it sounds a lot more fun than Jane’s life as a country clergyman’s wife. No wonder Prudence is in no hurry to tie the knot.

Jane and Prudence is loosely based on Emma by Jane Austen. There’s a direct allusion to it at the beginning of the novel:

Prudence disliked being called ‘Miss Bates’; if she resembled any character in fiction, it was certainly not poor silly Miss Bates.

I guess that Jane is Emma and Prudence is Harriet. Nicholas has Mr Knightley’s kindness and humour. Fabian is Frank Churchill and you’ll need to read the book to look for the other characters!

This was my fourth Barbara Pym after Excellent Women, about Mildred, the spitfire spinster, Some Tame Gazelle, featuring Belinda, the clever spinster, and The Sweet Dove Died with Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Other reviews by Jacqui here and by Simon here.

  1. April 4, 2021 at 4:21 pm

    So nice to read about this delightful novel again after reading it a few years ago. There’s always a sharp edge to Pym’s gentle humour and cosy ménages; hope you don’t mind if I post a link to my own piece on it here – https://wp.me/s3oBGt-1725


    • April 4, 2021 at 9:02 pm

      I really like her style and her stories. Thanks for the link, I’ll add it to my billet.


  2. April 4, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    I can imagine Pym was the perfect antidote! I liked this one, calling it “quiet but pithy” – I read quite a few of her works back in 2013 as part of a readalong though I ran out of steam at the end a bit as they became too similar to me. But this one I liked a lot!


    • April 5, 2021 at 8:54 am

      She was and it was welcome.

      I can imagine that her books sound similar when you read them in a row. My favourite one is still Excellent Women.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. April 5, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    I loved Jane and Prudence, though my favourite remains Excellent Women – I haven’t read The Sweet Dove Died or Some Tame Gazelle yet. Crampton Hodnet was funny, but I didn’t love No Fond Return of Love and I’m taking a little break from Pym so that her work doesn’t get too same-y. I like the idea of Prudence as the Harriet spinster!


    • April 5, 2021 at 9:24 pm

      My favourite is also Excellent Women. My next one will be Crampton Hodnet, in a while, I want to pace myself to enjoy her books.


  4. April 5, 2021 at 10:49 pm

    Pym is one of my all-time favourites. And I know about pacing yourself. Quartet in Autumn is my favourite of the lot.


    • April 6, 2021 at 5:43 am

      It sounds like I still have at least two good ones to read: Quartet in Autumn & Crampton Hodnet.


  5. April 7, 2021 at 6:34 am

    IMO Quartet in Autumn is very different from the rest.


    • April 7, 2021 at 7:52 am

      That’s good to know, thanks.
      What did you think about The Sweet Dove Died?


  6. April 7, 2021 at 4:14 pm

    Loved it. I know it’s considered ‘darker’ than her other works and I’d agree but Quartet in Autumn is, well I wouldn’t call it dark, but it’s sobering, at least that’s how I’d describe it.


  7. April 8, 2021 at 4:08 pm

    Good to see that you enjoyed this, Emma – and thanks for the link. I think it’s one of my favourites so far, certainly amongst the early novels. As you say, her observations of village life are so perceptive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 8, 2021 at 9:23 pm

      You and Guy introduced me to Barbara Pym.
      What a waste of potential for Jane and Prudence. They probably both had what it took to have a career at university and they didn’t have choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. April 11, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    I’d better add a Pym to my audiobook reading. As an Australian who attended the local Church of England every week until he was 18 (and whose mother is still totally involved in church society) this is all very familiar, though the Anglican church is much more Evangelical these days. I wonder why a vicar’s wife, not much interested in parish work and with only one child didn’t have time to continue her study of C17th poets. Also, I wonder if the comparison with Emma shouldn’t be Prudence/Emma, Jane/Mrs Weston.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 11, 2021 at 6:40 pm

      I think Pym is a great writer for audio books while driving. Have fun!

      *spoiler alert*
      Jane is the one who plays at matchmaking, so Emma.
      Prudence first goes out with Jane’s choice who marries a mousy spinster to everybody’s surprise. And Prudence ends up with someone from her office. So Harriet.
      There’s also this patronising relationship between the two. Jane, being older, feels a bit responsible for Prudence’s future, like Emma with Harriet, even if it’s due to a difference in social class.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint
    April 17, 2021 at 10:41 pm

    This is one that I’ve read and enjoyed as well. And isn’t Pym delightful for soothing the rough edges of reading spirits after a demanding (or off-putting) read. If you haven’t read her diaries and Hazel Holt’s bits and bobs about her/their friendship, then you have those to anticipate as well. (Although maybe more of interest if a writing life intrigues you.)


    • April 18, 2021 at 9:05 am

      Pym is a good comfort read, isn’t she?
      I haven’t read anything about her life. I’ve seen a lot of tweets about a new biography by Paula Birne “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym”

      Liked by 1 person

      • buriedinprint
        April 20, 2021 at 4:25 pm

        Yes, I would love to read that one too!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. May 16, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    I haven’t read this one yet. Like you I’m pacing myself on Pym (my next is Some Tame Gazelle). I’ll definitely be picking this up though.


    • May 16, 2021 at 12:33 pm

      I loved Some Tame Gazelle.
      Have you read Miss Mole by EH Young?


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