Men are boring and irritating: Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence

Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19531

There’s a particularly English kind of novel in which quietly ironic humour is the dominant tone. The irony in Jane and Prudence serves to create a critical view of a certain kind of middle class set of people, mostly in the country, but some in the city of London, whose idiosyncracies, defects and obsessions act as an index of a whole swathe of middle England in the post-war period in which the novel is set.

The Jane of the title is the 41-year-old wife of a vicar. As the novel opens she is attending a reunion of the alumnae of the Oxford college at which she had been a tutor to Prudence Bates, 29, an age when spinsterhood is considered in danger of shifting into old maidishness.

This is a novel of contrasts which are mostly shown up by a close attention to appearances and personal traits, and in the fact that neither woman feels she has fulfilled her potential as an Oxford graduate in a world where such accomplishment is not considered a useful asset in a woman.

Jane is dowdily dressed, showing little care for how she looks – her ‘old tweed coat’, we learn, looks like the kind ‘one might have used for feeding the chickens in’, and the country vicarage she and her husband Nicholas move to at the start of the novel is furnished frugally and shabbily. The curtains don’t quite meet in the middle. She’s a ‘great novel reader, perhaps too much for a vicar’s wife’, and her academic interest in the poetry of the 17C raises little interest in her new environment. She hardly knows where the kitchen is, and is ‘indifferent…to domestic arrangements’.

B Pym, Jane and Prudence Prudence wears elegant, sophisticated clothes, and furnishes her fashionable London flat in a chic Regency style. She’s usually involved in short-lived love affairs, mostly with totally unsuitable men. As with Jane Austen, there’s an assumption that a single woman must be in search of a suitable husband as the only possible goal in life in this skewed, patriarchal society.

Jane’s marriage has lost its original romance, and is summed up in her mind by her husband’s ‘mild, kindly looks and spectacles’. Both women are, in their own ways, lost and unfulfilled, and it’s this edge of frustration and disappointment that prevents the novel from descending into twee rom-com. There’s a bleakness about Pym’s portrayal of mid-20C middle class England.

This is seen most poignantly in the depiction of Jessie Morrow, a ‘little brown woman’ and paid companion and distant relative to an elderly battleaxe, Miss Doggett. These two also feature in Crampton Hodnett, which I wrote about recently HERE. Jessie, even more frumpishly dressed than Jane, is treated like a servant by her condescending employer – she is more of a ‘sparring partner’ than companion, as Jessie shrewdly points out. Although she has learned to remain invisible, she has hidden depths of intelligence and cunning. These emerge when she succeeds in snaring the local lothario, a preening, self-obsessed and louche widower called Fabian Driver, who lives next door, and snatching him out of the elegant arms of Prudence. To do so she wears one of his late wife’s dresses, which she had pilfered, and in so doing turns his fickle head.

It’s difficult to convey the pleasures of this novel in just a short space. Every page has little moments of delightful humour laced with that bleakness I mentioned earlier. Here’s a random example from early on: Jane has entered her husband’s new church for the first time and sees it being prepared by the fussy church ladies for Harvest Thanksgiving (not ‘Festival’, she’s sniffily informed by one of them, Miss Doggett, in her default tyrant mode; ‘festival’ sounds much too pagan for her) . Jane knows she’s going to seem inadequate and inferior to them in comparison with her more socially skilled and compliant predecessor.

She ill-advisedly expresses a wish to them that they will sing ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’ during the service:

‘It is such a fine hymn. In many ways one dislikes Milton, of course; his treatment of women was not all that it should have been.’

‘Well, they did not have quite the same standards in the old days,’ said Miss Doggett, frowning. ‘Of course we shall have the usual harvest hymns, I imagine. We plough the fields and scatter,’ she declared in a firm tone, almost challenging anyone to deny her.

This is typical of the way in which Pym narrates. Jane, an admirer of the Metaphysicals, would find Milton too sober and misogynistic; Miss Doggett, as her name implies, holds unbending, unreconstructed views about the place of women in society, and her dogmatic stance reveals her as representative of a view widely held at the time, and unfortunately still found today. The clash is silent but telling.

For all her scattiness and eccentricity, Jane holds views more consistent with Pym’s own, the reader is led to believe in such scenes, than those of the superficially more worldly Prudence, whose disastrous romances are a symptom of her incapacity for judgement when it comes to men, as a consequence of a lack of strength of character – her attractive looks and dress simply mask her weaknesses.

Some aspects of the novel are perhaps outmoded: there’s a great deal of knowing witticism about the various modes of religious faith, from High Church and Catholicism to chapel, for example. But these are offset by the barbed ironies throughout, especially those to do with marriage and sex.

This is Jane reflecting on Fabian’s dumping of her friend Prudence in favour of the less glamorous, ‘mousy’ Jessie – whom Pym has repeatedly shown to be a far more interesting character, a contrast to which Jane remains oblivious, being more inclined to interpret poetry than the human heart.

Feeling guilty at the part she’d played, like Austen’s Emma, in bringing her friend together with treacherous, shallow, handsome Fabian, she consoles herself with the thoughts that, first, at least Prudence hadn’t got pregnant, and second, that ‘it was obvious that at times [Prudence] found him both boring and irritating’. The internal monologue that follows is characteristic of Pym’s narrative poise, as Jane begins to perceive home truths about herself and marriage reflected in Fabian’s rejection of fashionable, headstrong Prudence and preference for ostensibly dreary Jessie as a wife:

But wasn’t that what so many marriages were – finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring or irritating? …Perhaps this [i.e. Jessie] was after all what men liked to come home to, someone restful and neutral, who had no thought of changing the curtains or wallpapers? Jessie, who, for all her dim appearance, was very shrewd, had no doubt realised this. A beautiful wife would have been too much for Fabian, for one handsome person is enough in a marriage, if there is to be any beauty at all. And so often there isn’t… [Ellipses mine]

I hope I haven’t spoilt your potential enjoyment of this novel by revealing such aspects of the novel; I don’t think it’s really the denouement of the plot that is the most satisfying part of a Barbara Pym novel: it’s the journey there, and the epiphanies that ensue for her delicately delineated characters.

I”ve written about Pym’s novel Excellent Women HERE and No Fond Return of Love HERE

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26 thoughts on “Men are boring and irritating: Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence

  1. Wow, that was so much fun to read, Simon, and doesn’t spoil the novel at all, as the pleasure of reading Pym is more marveling her turn of phrase and observations. She is so amazingly subtle and piercing. Pym was put on this earth to be a novelist, just like Graham Greene.

    So many ideas popped into my mind! I love Jane’s “indifference to domestic arrangements.” Sadly, she is likely not the best-suited person to the “job” of vicar’s wife. It reminds me a bit of the “job” of military officer’s wife (my sister is one of these wives, and excells at emotional intelligence, subtlety, and the art of endearing herself to higher-level officers and, (more) importantly, their wives. I would have HATED to be in this type of position, and am sure I would been a horrible thorn in my hypothetical officer-husband’s side!

    I love the reappearance of Jessie and Miss Doggett, that is too funny. Both of these women, each in their own way, seems more apt at making their way in the world than poor Jane and Prudence, Jessie due to her native cunning, and Miss Doggett with her money and “lead in the trousers” personality. I like to think that if Miss Doggett had been born without any money, she would have found a way to terrorize her way through life (maybe as a landlady or the proprietress of a boarding house).

    I found myself thinking of Wharton’s “House of Mirth” and, going back further, the work of Jane Austen. It seems that the fates of Jane and Prudence are a bit less dire by the mid-century, as it is harder to “ruin” yourself by the 1950’s.

    Thanks once again, for a wonderful piece of writing, Simon. As for “boring and irritating.” Aren’t we ALL a bit boring and irritating to those who know us best, sometimes? : )

    • Oh, Maureen, I do like ‘lead in the trousers’. Haven’t heard that expression before. And yes, BP is I’m sure aware of the one-sidedness of Jane’s perception about men: it is after all focalised through her mind that the phrase appears – as it does in Austen, usually with the voice or thoughts of her female protagonists. The dual perspective in J & P allows her a bit more latitude, and waspish humour. As you say, who among us isn’t boring and irritating at times – to someone. And thanks, as ever, for the kind words about the post. Btw, I’m also put in mind of George Eliot’s perception of female roles, as well as the more obvious Austen, who’s name checked a few times in this novel. There’s also some of GE’s intellect and, well, philosophical bent. Much disguised and muted. Hope all is well with you in beleaguered DC.

  2. I think lead in the trousers (a polite way of phrasing the more salty phrase “lead in the @ss) is a Navy term!

    Thanks for well-wishes, between Trump and our Democratic (ostensibly “progressive”) party bandying about supporting “anti-choice” (outlawing abortion) candidates, it is a trying time.

  3. Women in the 1950s had a rude awakening all over the world, but none more so, I think, than in Britain, where they had played crucial roles during the war not only on the home front but also in the armed services. And then in the post war era were expected to vacate the jobs they’d had, for men returning from the war. My mother, for one, was not very good at meekly submitting to domestic life after a career in the ATS. (Which was not just changing truck tyres, as in the photo of its most famous recruit Princess Elizabeth. It also involved crossing the Channel to salvage truck parts from the battle front).
    I think Pym spoke for the frustrations of a whole cohort of women, tertiary educated or not.

    • Lisa: I agree that ‘a whole cohort of women’ felt the frustrations of the likes of J & P, but I don’t see much of those ‘uneducated’ women’s experience in the novel – just as we don’t see the servants in J Austen. There’s Mrs Glaze; this is how she’s introduced, p.13; Jane’s vicar husband says: ‘But there is somebody coming…A lady, or perhaps a woman, in a straw hat with a bird on it, and she is carrying a blood-stained bundle’. Like the typists in Prudence’s office, this woman is never depicted suffering anything other than the frustrations of working for indolent masters, or those who take them for granted, leaving them to do the basic work that’s beneath the dignity of their betters. What frustrations they are shown smarting from manifest themselves largely in petty gossip and malicious one-upwomanship. The pub landlady’s frustration with the smarmy Fabian is simply that his drinking at her bar is keeping her from her meal. Sadly, I can’t see much interest in her lower-class women characters from Barbara Pym. Why should she? Like Austen, she wrote about what she knew, the social circle in which she circulated (slightly lower level than Austen’s, perhaps). Btw, my mother too experienced a kind of liberation during WWII – she went to Somerset and helped run a hostel for evacuated London kids. After the war, when she married and had a family, she never formally worked again. Her frustration was palpable. We need to look to other writers for the examination of the post-war experience of women from the lower classes – not sure I can think of any off hand.

      • Sharp observations, Simon. Reminds me of some analyses of the Golden Age mysteries, such as those of Christie, when the foundation of the story is righting some tear in the fabric of the social order. See also Jane Austen. While sharply observant, Pym is an author quite comfy on her more or less well upholstered platform of the social ladder.

        • Agreed, Maureen; BP is no revolutionary (neither is Austen) and she did make her caustic observations sotto voce from a fairly privileged position. She may have deplored women’s powerless role in society, but she didn’t find much fundamentally wrong with the basic social fabric, it seems to me. But she’s still a fun read.

          • Agreed on that. Love her and Evelyn Waugh for the sheer pleasure of their witty observations.

          • This is self-absorbed, shallow Fabian to Prudence, who’s just told him her friend Jane could have written books if she hadn’t married: ‘I always think women who write books sound rather formidable.’
            ‘You’d prefer them to be stupid and feminine? To think men are wonderful?’
            ‘Well, every man likes to be thought wonderful. A woman need not necessarily be stupid to admire a man.’

  4. Brilliant review. I too love this Pym novel. I always thought Jane must be a little like BP herself. Jessie Morrow’s unenviable position is so well portrayed and the underlying darkness in it subtly disguised.

    • Thanks, heavenali. I’m sure there’s a lot of BP in Jane, too: shrewd but slightly dotty. I have a soft spot for Jessie, too: not as mousy and inconsequential as she’s assumed by most around her to be. I like the wry view of the dynamic of relationships Pym achieves, too, through Jane’s epiphany about Prudence and Fabian near the end: ‘But of course, she remembered, that was why women were so wonderful; it was their love and imagination that transformed these unremarkable beings’ (i.e. men!)

  5. I love this book, and really enjoyed your review. I’ve been meaning to do it on my blog for years, such good opportunities for me, and now perhaps you have inspired me to take it down for a re-read. I remember a moment where Jane is rather horrified by Prudence’s make-up – cosmetics feature so little in older fiction, apart from very cliched remarks about the kind of women who wear rouge or red lipstick.

    • Moira: I contemplated a blog along the lines of your posts, focusing just on clothes – this novel really lends itself to that approach. there’s a lot of business about how chic Prudence is compared with the other women, such as a red velvet ‘house coat’ she wears, causing much scandal and envy. And even dapper, dodgy Fabian: his ‘ravaged’ good looks, ‘hair worn rather too long’ and his ‘casual tweed suit and brogued suede shoes, which gave the impression of a town-dweller dressed for the country.’ Clothes are very much an index of character in this novel. And yes, make up figures largely: Prudence shows up for a charity village function completely over-dressed and over-made up. Prudence’s dowdy colleagues in her dubious office: ‘Miss Trapnell was putting on her mauve office cardigan’; ‘Miss Trapnell’s garment was shrunken and not altogether clean, but she did not believe in wearing ‘good’ clothes for the office.’ And so on.

  6. That’s a great review, and I think you’re correct; it’s the bleakness that is just a thought away that makes the books great and never sickly or silly. And her observation of the small unpleasantnesses of life.

    • Liz: thanks for the encouraging words. Yes, there’s a lot of surface gloss and charm, but that darkness is never far away; this comes out often, but particularly towards the end, when Prudence has had yet another disappointing experience with men. When her dowdy, tweed-clad, lisle-stockinged friend Eleanor comes to visit, she advises Prue to give up the life of romance and settle into her own kind of female occupation. Prudence reflects: ‘One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.’ It’s that addition of ‘bored’ that we know resonates most strongly with Prudence (and Pym).

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