The Ordinary Lives of Women: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym & Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Both Tehanu, and Jane and Prudence place women at their center. The focus of both the stories is on the “small” things that occupies a woman’s space. And it is this very “smallness” of their scope that I loved so much!

jane-and-prudenceJane and Prudence is silly, funny, and immensely readable.

It’s silly because its two protagonists, Jane and Prudence, are silly, though not twits. Pym writes about their follies with such generosity that it is very hard to look at them with anything but affection, and/or amusement.

Jane is a country vicar’s wife, and has a tendency to expect her real life experiences to play out as their fictional counterparts do. She often drifts off into her own thoughts and finds it rather comforting to cast her experiences in terms of the obscure 17th century poetry that she studied in Oxford, fragments of which surface up in her consciousness now, and then. She isn’t anyone’s idea of a vicar’s wife, and her presence is vaguely uncomfortable to those around her (most noticeably her daughter) but she is cheerfully impervious to this. What prevents her from becoming annoying is this very cheerfulness, this joie de vivre—never mind the reception of this joie de vivre! Her bouts of self-awareness, and her amusement at herself help too. And on a related noted, Pym’s gentle invoking of Trollope-like books throughout the story to  make fun of them by (generally!) underscoring the departure of real lives from fictional ones is quite funny!

Then there’s Prudence. I almost want to add a “poor” in front of Prudence! She starts the book by imagining herself in love with her middle-aged frump of a boss, spends most of the book with a man who shines and sparkles—though not in the intelligence department— and ends with someone who seems to be happily her equal! She’s unapologetic about her string of lovers, and recalls them all rather fondly! Jane and Prudence are quite different from one another, and even though the book is called “Jane and Prudence,” the book is not so much about their relationship with each other as much as their relationship with the world around them.

I think Pym’s genius lies in characterization. Each person in the book is unique, and feels very real. The cast of secondary characters is delightful. And again, they are sketched with such generosity that their absurdities amuse you rather than annoy you! I didn’t agree with all of Pym’s conclusions about marriage, gender roles, and men, but that didn’t prevent me from having a jolly good time!

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

tehanuI loved Tehanu. I faintly recall the first book (in the Earthsea series), remember some of The Tombs Of Atuan, and haven’t read the third one. The story places Tenar, who was rescued by and shared the stage with Ged, in The Tombs of Atuan, at its center. In Tehanu, Ged shares the stage with Tenar.

We find out that Tenar gave up her sort-of-apprenticeship with Ogion in order to become Goha, a farmer’s wife, who runs a house and has children and as different an experience as possible from the one she had  as Tenar at Atuan.

Reader, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading Tehanu. I like making a haven of my home. I like cooking. I take pleasure in tasks that would seem chores at best, and meaningless at worst. I like domestic activities, and there was a period in my life when I was bothered by my apparent enjoyment of domesticity. I wondered if I were a less of a feminist because of this.

For me, Tehanu too seems to be exploring these very issues. Are things related to home and hearth diminutive in nature? And does this diminution carry over to, and makes small, whoever is the care-taker of home and hearth?

Le Guin asks of her characters, and her readers, what is the source of magic in Earthsea? What is the appeal of magic? What about it makes Ged, who is no longer a mage in Tehanu, feel broken, and ashamed of himself? From where does magic draw its power? Is the potential of an “ordinary village witch” any less than that of a trained wizard? Is what she does any less because she does not know the “true” language? What is the source of a woman’s magic? Is it fundamentally any different than a man’s? Why are the men in Earthsea (especially the mages) so afraid of women?

Tenar comes into her own in this book. She has experienced the “authority allotted her by the arrangements of mankind,” and is now ready to explore beyond these boundaries. Not for her, the divisive, constricting definitions of home, power, or wisdom.

I’ll end with Le Guin’s own words from the Afterword:

“What cannot be mended must be transcended.”

Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn’t a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend.

7 thoughts on “The Ordinary Lives of Women: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym & Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. Juhi, I always have a jolly good time with Barbara Pym! She is so slyly funny, so observant and intelligent about people and their little follies and misunderstandings. Ordinary lives are a real treat in her hands. I’ve read this one but it’s been a long time and I seem to have forgotten everything about it. She’s an author who I intend to reread, however, so maybe I should start with this one! There are a few of hers I haven’t read yet, mostly the later ones. I did get The Barbara Pym Cookbook (!) for Christmas! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Ordinary lives are a real treat in her hands,” is EXACTLY it, Laila! This was my first Pym (I tried reading Excellent Women some time back but never finished it). I think I’ll be trying more!

      AND THERE IS A BARBARA PYM COOKBOOK?!!!! (runs away to look it up!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the parallels that you’ve drawn between two such diversely different books!…and I read both SUCH a long time ago, I am definitely going to have to go back and re-read them….I have her Annals of the Western Shore series in my tbr as well – have you read any of those?? I think I feel a Le Guin glom coming on… (ooh alliteration as well (!) ) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha! No, I haven’t! I’ve not read any other le Guin actually! Is there anything specific that you’d recommend?

      And yes, it was very funny to me, the way the scope of the two novels seemed to be so similar!

      Like

  3. Pingback: A Few Quiet Ones | Nooks & Crannies - ’cus they’re perfect for a book lover

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