In complete contrast to other recent reading – and I’m a great believer in contrast in reading to stop you getting bored – I have now finished March’s book in the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly readalong – “Jane and Prudence.”

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The book opens with the two heroines attending a university reunion. There is an age difference between these two as Jane actually taught Prudence having made a brief return to her career. Jane is comfortably married to Nicholas, a Vicar, and has a teenage daughter Flora. Prudence is single, with a stream of paramours behind her and currently enamoured of her boss, writer Arthur Grampian. Jane and her family are moving to a country parish and she hopes to find a suitable partner for Prudence, as she is determined to marry her off.

We are on familiar ground here with Pym – a parochial setting, a Vicar and his retinue of “excellent women”, the desperate decision to marry or stay single – and yet, the book is not dull or predictable and as always Pym’s characters sparkle. We are still in the 1950s, a time when girls were still expected to find a husband and be a good wife. I was, however, still a little shocked when, even though Flora is at University, Nicholas expresses the certainly that she will settle down and marry.

But Pym is very clever in the way that she uses Jane and Prudence to personify the opposing sides of the dilemma for women. They have differing expectations of life, perhaps owing to the age difference, and Jane on the surface seems sure that she has done the right thing; although the reader does find him or herself musing on her “unsuitability” as a Vicar’s wife and wondering how significant are her regrets about her literary ambitions. The difficult decision of whether to marry or not seems to have been one which preoccupied Pym, certainly in her early works. As one of their old university friends muses, “Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.”

There is an interesting side-plot with Fabian, the local good-looking widower who Jane has lined up for Prudence. Although they make a pretty couple on the surface, he actually has no depth at all despite his looks, and Prudence has glamour AND brains. Instead of taking a risk and marrying Prudence, he eventually goes for the safer option by replacing his late wife Constance with a younger version of herself, one of the neighbouring women, who will be comfortable rather than challenging.

As always, this book is full of lovely, sharp dialogue – this about Fabian Driver:

“You see, her husband was more interested in other women than he was in her. I believe that does sometimes happen. Her death came as a great shock to him – he had almost forgotten her existence.”

Pym shows her female characters observing men through the rose-tinted glasses of love – Prudence’s Arthur Grampian, when seen by Jane, is actually old and ordinary; Fabian is good-looking but shallow; Mr. Oliver, whom Flora adores when she sees him in church surroundings, is very disappointing when out of them; Mr. Manifold is an “ordinary young man”; even Nicholas, though criticised affectionately by Jane, is only a man. I’m not sure if Pym is a bit of a man-hater but she definitely thinks we deceive ourselves into love!

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time, thought Jane. Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things – enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it didn’t matter which.”

With the rather grumpy character of Geoffrey Manifold, I think Pym is throwing a little something extra into the mix and hinting that it will do Prudence good to be involved with an ordinary young man rather than daydreaming unsuitably about Arthur Grampian. I confess I saw this development coming, and I wonder if anything long-term might come of it, or if Jane’s emerging plan at the end of the book, to pair Prudence off with the local MP, might be Pym’s intention?

Jane, it must be said, is a wonderful creation of a character – scatty, untidy, apt to quote poetry at the most unsuitable moments, you can’t help but love her. Everything about her is well-meaning and despite her rather feeble grasp on the reality around her, she’s great fun!

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As an aside, I was tickled pink that Pym resolved the end of “Excellent Women” by dropping into a conversation the news that Mildred Lathbury had married Everard Bone! I kind of expected that was what Pym was hinting at, and I do wonder if this will be a tendency in her books, as she’s carried forward characters from STG to EW, and then EW to J&P – I rather like this and I hope it will carry on.

In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and it had a lot more to it than might initially appear. Although on the surface light and frothy (and alas, this is what I think the cover and Jilly Cooper foreword are trying to project), it is in fact a quietly subversive little book with plenty to say about men and women. Pym obviously takes seriously the issue of what women should do with their lives – whether they should compromise and sacrifice individuality in a marriage, or stick to the single life and have the freedom without the comfort of companionship. It’s a big topic and one which is still relevant today, and Pym’s quiet but pithy novels adds a lot to the debate.