The friends Jane and Prudence present a contrast: Jane is a 41-year-old clergyman’s wife in a small English village. Prudence is a 29-year-old single woman supporting herself in London. Neither has it all together: Jane loves her husband but is inept at domestic and parish duties and will never live up to her intellectual potential. Prudence is well-turned-out, educated and elegant, yet she enters into one after another unsatisfactory romance. They are representative of the vague dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s. The subject could be a downer were Jane and Prudence not from the satiric pen of Barbara Pym. As one critic noted, Pym is like Jane Austen, but funnier.
The plot of Jane and Prudence mostly concerns Jane’s attempts to find a husband for Prudence. Pym’s novels, however, are about character more than plot. Pym’s insights into human nature are so shrewd and funny that her fans return to her books over and over again. In Jane and Prudence, a variety of characters populate the title characters’ environments—including the particularly laughable Fabian, a fortyish widower who’s vain, self-absorbed, and clueless—yet Jane pegs him as a husband prospect for Prudence. Jane’s world also includes her gentle, good-natured husband; their 18-year-old daughter, who’s beginning college; and a bossy older woman and her younger, calculating companion, who turns out to be a rival for Fabian. Prudence’s office includes the boss with whom she imagines herself in love; a colorless young man who takes a liking to her; and two tedious middle-aged spinsters.
The ending of Jane and Prudence hardly hints at happily ever after, but readers will still close the book feeling lighthearted.
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