Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

More Barbara Pym

I began Claire Messud's All the Emperor's Children, then put it down. I'd just finished Excellent Women, and somehow all the bitchy New York irony Messud was offering didn't cut it. Not to say the book is bad, or I won't read it. I will. But I had two more Pyms in the pile, and I longed to be back in the English vicarage. So Claire's perfectly New York Hip People will have to wait a little longer.

I picked up Jane and Prudence, a crumbling paperback copy. It's amazing how much books have changed. This paperback edition is from a 1981 print run. There are no acknowledgements, sharp jackets designs by Chip Kidd or Carole Devine Carson, author photos by Brigitte Lacombe or Marion Ettlinger. No "about the author" or discussions of the obscure Dutchman who invented the typeface. Instead there's a cover featuring two women rendered in profile, black, cameo style, against a prim, wallpaperish background. In other words, one is supposed to be interested in the content. What a concept.

Like Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence takes place in London and a nearby village. Jane and Prudence, though about ten years apart, are old school friends. Jane is married to Clergyman Nicholas. They have one daughter, eighteen-year-old Flora. Prudence, nearing the awfully spinsterish age of thirty, lives and works in London, where she carries on numerous unsatisfactory love affairs. Jane, newly installed in an unnamed English village, decides she must introduce Prudence to Fabian Driver, a handsome widow cultivating his reputation as a lonely fellow. He is, in truth, a cad who messed around on his poor wife Constance. Jane sees fit to overlook this as nasty gossip.

Nasty gossip is where Pym flourishes. Her eye for human misbehavior is sharp, yet so well-masked in humor that it's easy to see why people always found her work so twee. It's not--Pym misses nothing. Her description of the ladies in Prudence's office could hold its own with the masterful movie Office Space:

"'Well of couse I have been sitting here since a quarter to ten, ' said Miss Clothier. 'So perhaps I have got cold sitting.'
'Ah, yes; you may have got cold sitting,' agreed Miss Trapnell. 'I have only been here since five to ten.'
Prudence, who had arrived at ten past ten, made no comment and indeed none seemed necessary. The hours of work were offically ten till six, but Prudence considered herself too highly educated to be bound by them." (36)

The goings on about tea are hilarious: who shall make it? The lowly typists, of course. But what if they forget? And what about Mr. Manifold's penchant for Nescafe? Who will pour? It's all very foreign to the American reader until one considers the antics that commence about 11:30 in offices nationwide:

What are you having for lunch?
Let's order pizza!!!
I can't eat that. I'm on Jenny Craig.
I brought mine from home.
Let's order from Generic Chinese!
We can't. They're closed on Tuesdays.
They are NOT!

Tell me this doesn't happen where you work.

Jane's matchmaking skills are, alas, little better than her housekeeping. By her own admission, she cannot so much as open a tin, and is relieved by the ministrations of Mrs. Glaze, whose butcher nephew keeps them in livers and joints as the country slowly emerges from rationing.

Pym's description of Jane's inadequate housekeeping is masterful: the food, as Laurie Colwin noted, is wonderfully described. Even better, it tells us much about Jane's character. On Mrs. Glaze's day off (which Jane has forgotten about), she nervously announces to Nicholas than lunch out is a good idea. Is there not Spam? Nicholas inquires.

Not since the war, says Jane.

Why not open a tin of something, then?

"'A tin of what? That's the point.'
...'Then there isn't anything to eat in the house? Is that what you're trying to tell me?'
...'Yes, that is the position.'" (48-9)

The entire truth is Jane forgot to go to the butcher's. Nor is she any better shelving the many books or ensuring Nicholas has a clean shirt. She is intelligent, well-meaning, and so reminiscent of a close relative of mine (NOT my mother, a great cook and house-manager) that I had difficulty tolerating her kindly dithering. One of the closing scenes in the novel, a dinner party consisting of Flora, her beau Paul, Nicholas, Jane, Prudence, and Fabian is a set piece wherein all assembled manage to display their best and worst. The men then excuse themselved from the washing up, to the women's dismay. Not, notes Prudence, that Jane is any better, halfheartedly sloshing wine glasses about in dirty water.

For all this, Jane is well-read. She gave up literary studies to marry Nicholas; we learn in passing she once published a book of essays. So even in 1953 the finest of ladies knew themselves stuck between lives of the intellect and those of old-fashioned wifery.

Mildred Lathbury, heroine of Excellent Women, appears briefly, in one of the ever-diverting alumni bulletins; we readers learn her life continues most felicitously.

As in Excellent Women, all's well that end's well, and readers come away smiling, if shaking their heads at human folly.

My paperback edition is from Harper Perennial, dated 1981.

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