Barbara Pym’s realistic and slightly sad world
Not much of anything happens in any of the Barbara Pym novels I’ve read so far. ‘A Quartet in Autumn’ had a death, but ‘Jane and Prudence’ doesn’t have anything of real consequence, and is not the kind of literary fiction designed that way (deep, but lacking in action), but her work is still interesting. They feel like realistic eavesdropping into someone’s life for a few months.
We see the journey the title characters of ‘Jane and Prudence’ take, which involves Jane, a vicar’s wife, settling into a new parish, while her younger friend Prudence, a London office worker, fall in love with a married man and have a couple of disastrous relationships. And although Jane is happily married, it’s only as happy as anyone really is, she still feels the pressure of position, guilt and awkwardness at social functions. The journeys are all inner, people change their thinking, as we all do the more experience we get, but that’s all.
These books have the same kind of cosy 1950s-1960s feel of Miss Read, Mary Stewart, and other writers I associate with inhaling the fragrant steam from a teapot while hearing rain on the window, but throughout all I have read so far, the pain Barbara’s heart felt at the hands of men, detailed in her autobiography ‘A Very Private Eye’ is subtly evident. She doesn’t come across as bitter, but not everyone will get together, and no relationship will be perfect. And in ‘Jane and Prudence’, the most attractive, young widower in the novel will have a history of cheating so even when he does marry a kindly character, we will always wonder. And sometimes the office tea lady doesn’t arrive, and a grumpy colleague has to be asked for a spoon of his personal supply of instant coffee. And sometimes there’s nothing home-cooked for lunch, a tin must be opened. But Barbara Pym novels don’t feel sorry for themselves, there’s just no gloss. And definitely no happy ever after.