London: Virago, 2013, c1953.
An enjoyable reread, I found I appreciated this much more on the second time around! I think I first read it three or four years ago now. Perhaps my sensibilities have become more refined with age ;)
Jane and Prudence are unlikely friends, a decade apart. But they are old university acquaintances and have maintained their friendship. Jane is married to a Vicar, and they've just moved to a new country parish. Jane is a bit dithery and wears whatever clothes come to hand -- domesticity is not her strength, she'd rather be thinking about the 17th century poets she studied at Oxford so long ago.
Prudence on the other hand is a London girl, always dressed and groomed beautifully, but with a penchant for unsuitable love affairs. She fancies herself in love with her employer, a distant, gruff, married academic who works in some 'vague cultural organization'.
But now that Prudence is nearing 30, and Jane has a whole new social circle to explore, Jane starts thinking about matchmaking... and discovers that it is harder than it looks.
Like every Pym book, this one is full of wry observations, amusing reflections, and a reflection of the ways in which women prop up men in every way. And there is the reappearance of characters from her first novel, Crampton Hodnet. But Pym's characters are often eccentric, not in behaviour as much as thought, and Jane lives up to this tendency well.
“Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”Jane's first try at matchmaking goes sideways, but Prudence has other irons in the fire anyhow. She has a few interests in London, and starts up a flirtation on her own. However, Jane is not dissuaded and comes up with a brilliant idea.
The joy in this book is in Pym's wonderful writing. The observations, the quiet humour, the archness of some characters, and the way in which she subverts any expectation that she writes as a repressed spinster. She has no qualms about love and all its ramifications, and about the worthiness of men.
“Prue hadn't really been in love with Fabian. Indeed, it was obvious that at times she found him both boring and irritating. But wasn't that what so many marriages were - finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring, or irritating?”And she doesn't shy away from earlier characters who are quite realistic about the niceties of a woman's situation.
“Brides over thirty shouldn't wear white,' said Jessie, who had now joined them.Anyhow, I should stop quoting her now as I could probably add twenty more funny bits before I'm done. This is such a sharp and charming read, and one that gets better each time.
'Well, they may have a perfect right to,' said Jane.
'A woman over thirty might not like you to think that,' said Jessie quickly. 'There can be something shameful about flaunting one's lack of experience.”