Book Review: Jane and Prudence

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953)

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that there is nothing much to say beyond “good,” “bad,” “the type of thing I think you would like”, or “how did this ever get published?”

Sometimes when I finish a book I feel that any book review that did it justice would have to be at least as long as the original book.

Jane and Prudence falls into that second category of book.

So, to begin by getting some of the business done before moving on to the meat of the review.

This is an excellent book. I feel that on technical points the writing itself falls short of the standard set by Pym in Excellent Women but it surpasses that book in terms of the nuanced exploration of character and the entwined exploration of the themes of class and religion in England in the 1950s and class, gender and food rationing in England in the 1950s.

Warning the first: For those who have yet to read Excellent Women — one scene in this book containers spoilers about characters in that book.

Warning the second: This is one of those books which should be read without first reading the publisher’s description. For example, that of the Chivers Press edition of the book contains no information that cannot be gleaned without in the first few minutes of reading and mischaracterizes both the major characters, their interactions and what happens to each of them over the course of the story.

Jane and Prudence is set in the post WWII England when much of life still revolves around the problems and irritations that arose from the rationing of food. Rationing began January 8 1940 and continued even after the end of the war. Gradually, over the years, restrictions were dropped on various items such as clothes, chocolates, flour and soap but some items, particularly meat, were still rationed until July 4, 1954. These forced food shortages had the unintended consequence of making people much more consciously aware of how class, gender and social networks impacted who had access to which items.

The importance of meat is signaled early in the story, “people in these days do rather tend to worship meat for its own sake,’ said Jane, as they sat down to supper. ‘When people go abroad for a holiday they seem to bring back with them such a memory of meat.’” [1] (22)

Men, we learn as we read, can not be expected to endure the same dietary hardships as the women around them. For example, Jane and her husband Nicholas are having a meal at a local tea shop.

at last Mrs. Crampton emerged from behind the velvet curtain carrying two plates on a tray. She put in front of Jane a plate containing an egg, a rasher of bacon and some fried potatoes cut in fancy shapes, and in front of Nicholas a plate with two eggs and rather more potatoes. Nicholas exclaimed with pleasure.

‘Oh, a man needs eggs! said Mrs. Crampton, also looking pleased

This insistence on a man’s needs amused Jane. Men needed meat and eggs–well, yes, that might be allowed; but surely not more than women did? Perhaps Mrs. Crampton’s widowhood had something to do with it; possibly she made up for having no man to feed at home by ministering to the needs of those who frequented her café.

Nicholas accepted his two eggs and bacon and the implication that his needs were more important than his wife’s with a certain amount of complacency, Jane thought. But then as a clergyman he had had to get used to accepting flattery and gifts gracefully.. (p. 65)

But, the reader soon learns, Nicholas wasn\’t getting extra meat just because he was a clergyman:

Mrs. Crampton now returned and set down before Mr. Oliver a plate laden with roast chicken and all the proper accompaniments. He accepted it with quite as much complacency as Nicholas had accepted his eggs and bacon and began to eat.

Jane turned away, to save his embarrassment. Man needs bird, she thought. Just the very best, that is what man needs. (67)

Jane isn\’t the only woman who is consciously (and sardonically) aware that society seemed to feel that it was vitally important that men have their meat:

‘Mr. Driver! Mr. Driver!’ Mrs. Arkright came out on to the lawn calling. ‘Your steak’s ready!”

‘Ah, my steak.’ Fabian smiled. ‘You will excuse me, Miss Morrow?’

‘Of course. I should’t like to keep you from your steak. A man needs meat, as Mrs. Crampton and Mrs. Mayhew are always saying.’ She waved her hand in dismissal.

Fabian hurried away, conscious of his need for meat and of the faintly derisive tone of Miss Morrow’s remark, as if there were something comic about a man needing meat. (73, 74)

Pym is also clear-eyed and politely but firmly aware of the class presumptions that underline the religious habits of the British gentry.

One may wonder when Pym allows the reader into the shallow and self-centered “musings” of Fabian Driver if that sharp eye is trained only a particular type of person–someone who is facile and in the end desires social approval more than the approval of God:

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.(70, 71)

Yet Pym later reveals not dissimilar thoughts in the mind of one of the more sympathetic characters, the sophisticated and educated Prudence

But then she imagined herself sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair after a day’s work, listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself. Better, surely, to go along Farm Street and be instructed by a calm pale Jesuit who would know the answers to all one’s doubts. Then, in the street where she did her shopping there was the Chapel, with a notice outside which said: ALL WELCOME. The minister, the Rev. Bernard Tabb, had the letters B.D.; B.Sc. after his name. The fact that he was a Bachelor of Science might give particular authority to his sermons, Prudence always felt; he might quite possibly know all the answers, grapple boldly with doubt and overcome it because he knew the best and worst of both worlds. He might even tackle evolution and the atomic bomb and make sense of it all. But of course, she thought, echoing Fabian’s sentiments as he walked in the village one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Not even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on back of the New Statesman, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.(284,285)

Reading Pym makes this reader wonder if the petty and long lasting nature of the privations after the Second World War played a major role in breaking down (some) of the class structure and gender relations in England. People learned new skills during the war and they called on their bravery to withstand the dangers and the rigours of that time. After the war people were expected to return to their old jobs and their old ways of life as if they had not learned or experienced anything. Women who had held down jobs were expected to get married and settle done. But there weren\’t enough men around to marry even if the women wanted to do so. And the pettiness of the privations without actual physical danger to ameliorate their sting made people edgy and more likely to be critical and cynical.

The peace, even more than the war, was undermining in the old England much more than threats from foreign country. Men had gone off to fight a war to preserve the England in which they had grown up leaving behind women who were called to do things they never would have done in that old England. England was not conquered but nonetheless the old England was no longer there to return to and many of the women, if not the men, were questioning if they wanted to go back to the way things were before:

Rating: 5 stars

[1] All quotations are from Pym, Barbara (1986:1953) Jane and Prudence. Bath, UK: Chivers Press

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