(This is definitely going to be less rambling than the post I wrote for Excellent Women! I shall try to keep it short.)
Jane and Prudence are friends who met at university when Jane was Prudence’s tutor.
The book opens with Jane and Prudence at a college reunion. Jane is forty-one, Prudence twenty-nine. The former is married to her university sweetheart, Nicholas Cleveland, now a Church of England vicar. Prudence is personal assistant to an academic, Arthur Grampian, and is in love with him.
In the second chapter we see Jane, Nicholas, and their daughter Flora, settling into Nicholas’s new parish, in the country. Jane is looking forward to village life, thinking people there will be ‘less narrow and complacent’. Jane is not one of those competent and bossy wives who immediately takes charge and has everything and everyone under her control. She’s vague, doesn’t pay attention to her appearance, hates cooking, doesn’t relish getting involved in parish activities, and often dreams of the literary or academic life she could have had. Nevertheless she is happy with Nicholas and still in love with him.
Next we get a taste of Prudence’s life, in London; her work, for Arthur Grampian, at a ‘vague cultural organisation’, her colleagues (including one Geoffrey Manifold), her daily routine. I like that she is independent and free. However, there’s the loneliness and lack of purpose that sometimes accompanies an unattached situation. Is this the price anyone pays for being free to do as one pleases?
In the novel, Jane is constantly trying to think of suitable men to introduce to Prudence. Whenever she meets an unmarried male parishioner, she will think about whether he would make a good husband for her friend. When Prudence comes to visit, Jane introduces her to Fabian Driver, a handsome widower who was apparently constantly unfaithful to his wife.
My favourite thing in this novel is the depiction of the comfortable loving relationship between Jane and Nicholas, including occasions when Nicholas is rather bewildered, and even impatient with his wife, although he hardly shows it (well, he is described as ‘mild mannered’, with ‘gentle, apologetic tones’). Between Jane’s dreamy ways and Nicholas’ quiet demeanour, they are quite adorably strange.
When Jane got into the house she found Nicholas standing in the hall with a parcel in his hand. The absurd first-evening-of-spring feeling came back to her suddenly and she wondered if he had perhaps felt it too and brought her a present.
‘Look,’ he said undoing the wrapping. I thought I’d put them in my little cloakroom downstairs.’
On the table stood four soap animals in various colours, a bear, a rabbit, an elephant and a tortoise.
‘Kiddisoaps, for children, really,’ he explained. ‘I shall arrange them on the glass shelf.’ He went happily away, humming to himself.
If it is true that men only want one thing, Jane asked herself, is it perhaps just to be left to themselves with their soap animals or some other harmless little trifle?
‘Darling,’ she called out, ‘what do you think …?’
‘I shall use the tortoise first,’ her husband was saying in his little cloakroom.
Later, when Jane puts her foot in it at a meeting of the Parochial Church Council, held at the vicarage …
‘My dear, I wish you had not said what you did,’ said Nicholas gravely.
‘I, say anything?’ Jane looked bewildered for a moment. ‘But I always say what I think, and it was ridiculous all that fuss about the magazine cover and Father Lomax.’
‘Yes, it was a small thing, but Mortlake and Whiting seemed to think it important. You cannot expect them to see things as we do.’
‘Why should we always do what they want,’ Jane burst out. ‘Oh, if I had known it would be like this … She ran from the room and into the downstairs cloakroom, where the sight of Nicholas’s soap animals reminded her of her love for him and she might have wept had she not been past the age when one considers that weeping can do good or bring relief.
I always feel quite overcome reading those passages. However, if I actually had a partner like Nicholas, I might probably be permanently annoyed with him, although I do like the idea of soap animals.
The other thing that always gets to me in this novel is the way Jessie Morrow (a spinster who acts as companion to a Miss Doggett) insinuates herself into Fabian Driver’s life. Her tactics fill me with both admiration and horror, and I would be lying if I said they were entirely unfamiliar! As for Fabian, Jane might describe him as eating ‘the hearts of his victims en casserole’, but he is really a rather pathetic and weak man.
As usual, Pym’s book may seem to be a cosy and comfortable depiction of English life (even Fabian’s infidelity is described in terms that are strangely wholesome) and people, but is full of shrewd observations of human nature and types. You can read the story either way — Pym is so subtle that it’s not always obvious that she’s revealing attitudes and behaviour that are less than desirable.
Next: A Glass of Blessings