Last November, I went to a reading and book signing by No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series author Alexander McCall Smith. During the Q&A, he recommended Barbara Pym to a reader wanting a recommendation, since she’d read all his books, naturally. I took note of her name, because I’d heard it before. In my own current research, I’ve looked at the novel of manners as a genre and Pym’s name came up. So, I finally got around to reading Jane and Prudence on Saturday night and gulped the whole thing down in less than two nights.
My first thought on beginning reading the novel was, “How quaint.” And it seems to be. Pym tells the story of two women brought together by their time at Oxford–Jane is a 40-something clergyman’s wife who abandoned her emerging literary scholarship to marry and is the former tutor of Prudence, a 29-year-old working for a scholar she’s hopelessly in love with, and unhappily single. Pym fools you into thinking this is one of those fluffy, cutesy books “for girls,” and neatly sneaks in a critique of the gendered stereotypes of middle-class women. It’s quite cloak-and-dagger, really. I underestimated the skill with which Pym would go to criticize the way gender roles and the kinds of lives women could lead in the mid-twentieth century and was thus unprepared for how awesomely the novel would end. Prudence works in a neatly-worded barb reminiscent of Ms. Jane Austen herself, throwing out the idea that a woman is no mere doormat, but, like Prudence herself, can live in a world of possibility.
Truly, I can’t get over how much I freaking LOVED THIS BOOK. I would definitely recommend this over Nancy Mitford, because while it’s less obviously satiric, it is more subtle and more elegantly plotted. Plus, Prudence and Jane are both interestingly complex and sympathetic characters in their own right. While Pym’s writing is less barbed than Austen’s, there is something of the astute observer of people in her, and the matchmaking plot reminded me a bit of Emma. It’s elegantly written and it neatly takes down the idealized 50s housewife novelized by less skillful writers.