|Look out for the peonies on the altar...|
Class, Religion and Decor in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence
Jane is a fortyish vicar’s wife who has just moved to a country parish. Her friend Prudence is 29, and works in some unspecified publishing job. She shares an office with two female colleagues who are always discussing when the typists are going to bring their tea. (Because they couldn’t possibly make it themselves.) The hours of work were officially ten till six, but Prudence considered herself too highly educated to be bound by them.
Jane, the central character, treats her husband’s parish like a big joke, and tries to find suitable men for Prudence to marry. Prudence is an attractive girl who has had strings of admirers since Oxford – but shouldn’t she have chosen one of them by now?
As the story progresses, Jane becomes more and more irritating. She loved Oxford (where she taught Prudence), but she has never got over it. Her memories of “riotous fun” involve gathering autumn leaves and going to evensong. Her “bright” conversation annoys people. Her subject was obscure 17th century poets, and she once wrote a book of essays. But since she got married, she hasn’t cared enough to become good at anything. And: There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more.
When she sees someone she knows: She wanted to rush in to him, to greet him with some exaggerated mocking gesture, ‘Buon giorno, Rigoletto,’ posturing and bowing low. Did people ever behave like this? Thank goodness she resists the impulse.
Soon after the move, Prudence asks her: ‘Have you met any interesting people – people of one’s own type, I mean?’
She has met Fabian Driver, a local widower. Jane tries, rather inefficiently, to bring them together. Prudence could give cultured little dinner parties with candles on the table and the right wines and food... Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely.
As usual, Pym’s characters discuss class through other subjects, such as soft furnishings:
‘Oh, but it looks “lived in”,’ said Jane [of her vicarage living-room], ‘which is supposed to be a good thing. I thought Mrs Pritchard’s a little too well-furnished – those excessively rich velvet curtains and all that Crown Derby in the corner cupboard, it was a little overwhelming.’
Jane’s curtains, brought from a previous house, are too short and narrow to keep out the draughts that pervade Victorian vicarages, and she can’t be bothered to replace them, so her predecessor’s were “excessively rich”.
A visitor notices: ...the fireplace, whose emptiness was not even decently filled in with a screen or vase of leaves or dried grasses.
When Jane meets the Pritchards, she is amazed to find that they travel in a “motor” and have “luncheon” with the Bishop. But well-bred people talked like this even today, Jane believed.
Jane muses on the surroundings of young men living in lodgings: ‘I always feel so sorry for young men living in lodgings, especially on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder if he has a sitting-room with an aspidistra on a bamboo table in the window and a plush table-cloth with bobbles on it, and some rather dreadful pictures, perhaps, even photographs of deceased relatives on the wall.’
Prudence’s smart flat has a “general effect of Regency”, and pale green bed linen. Prudence drinks expensive Lapsang Souchong tea “out of a fragile white-and-gold cup”. But Jane ponders: Those light striped satin covers would ‘show the dirt’ – the pretty Regency couch was really rather uncomfortable and the whole place was so tidy...
Miss Doggett snoops around her companion’s bedroom: One would have imagined that a gentlewoman would have her ‘things’, those objects – photographs, books, souvenirs collected on holiday – which can make a room furnished with other people’s furniture into a kind of home.
Jane’s husband, Nicholas, is glad to be working in a genuinely old church: He would no longer have to say to visitors in his gentle, apologetic tones, almost as if it were his own fault, ‘I’m afraid our church was built in 1883,’ as in the suburban parish they had just left.
As usual in Pym novels, there is much discussion of shades of meaning in the Church of England – is the local church “high” or “low” enough? And where you worship depends on your social class: Here Fabian came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity.
Prue ponders going over to Rome, but can’t face: ... listening to a lecture by a raw Irish peasant that was phrased for people less intelligent than herself... Of course... one just couldn’t go to Chapel; one just didn’t. Nor even to those exotic religious meetings advertised on the back of the New Statesman, which always seemed to take place in Bayswater.
Jane explains the difference between low and high: Evensong in a damp country church with pews, and dusty red hassocks. No light oak chairs, incense or neat leather kneelers.
The ladies of the parish decorate the church every week. One of them describes a wonderful arrangement she’s seen: She’d put red and pink flowers on the pulpit, rhododendrons and peonies with some syringa and greenery. Red and pink together is a middle-class taboo, and rhododendrons and peonies are far too colourful and showy.
Prudence enjoys novels that are: ...well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.
The end of the novel is indefinite rather than unhappy. The story contains many tips on how to land a husband, but marriage may involve "struggling with the washing up for six", curbing your husband's penchant for little sentimental affairs, or not realising that his affectionate tolerance for you may be wearing thin. (We also discover that two characters from a previous novel, who had crushes on the two halves of a married couple, have married each other.)
More Pym here.