A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

“It seemed as though life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for the unreliable narrator, but in Barbara Pym’s exquisite Novel of Manners, A Glass of Blessings, we have an unobservant narrator–quite a curiosity when you think about it. After all, we rely on the narrator to fill us in on what is going on, but here we have someone who is often clueless and certainly the last person to understand the implications of the events around her.

barbara PymFirst a bit about Barbara Pym (1913-1980)–a novelist who happens to be a great favourite of mine and is horribly under-rated. Pym never wrote a bad novel. Quartet in Autumn, a novel that concerns 4 single civil servants post-retirement is one of my all-time favourite books.  Her characters are often mired in the minutia of the worlds of anthropology, fusty academia, or the clergy: all great stomping grounds for the raw material to create novels. Pym’s stories are on the quiet side of life, so we read about lonely spinsters, confused vicars, the pettiness of church functions, and the hum-drum nature of village life.  A Glass of Blessings is an affectionate portrait of a young woman in 1950s Britain, Wilmet (named after a character on a Charlotte Yonge novel), a young married, childless woman who longs to be useful. Wilmet actually leads a very privileged life; she and her husband, Rodney live with his mother Sybil in her London home. Meals are arranged thoughtfully for Wilmet by her kind, sagacious mother-in-law, and the household chores are performed by a servant, and while all the day-to-day work is completed seemingly effortlessly and invisibly, thirty-three-year-old Wilmet feels superfluous. Not that she wants to take over the household management or start scrubbing floors. After all, she knows other women who ‘have’ to work and genteel spinsters who’ve gone down in the world and need to supplement their meager incomes.  So rather than think of getting a job, Wilmet tries to be “useful” through various projects, and given to incongruous thoughts & flights of imagination, she sets out to improve Piers Longridge, the underemployed, somewhat mysterious wastrel brother of her best friend, and to make a friend of dowdy spinster, Mary Beamish, whose enthusiasm for self-sacrifice and good works makes Wilmet “feel particularly useless,” rather inadequate and gratingly irritated.

a glass of blessingsNot a great deal happens in the novel–no great drama, but instead we see the people in Wilmet’s daily life and how she mis-reads situations in the months covered by the novel.  In many ways A Glass of Blessings is a direct 20th century link to Jane Austen’s Emma. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is someone who wants to dabble in match-making until her plots explode in her face. Wilmet, on the other hand, is just trying to carve a place for herself in the world and not having a great deal of success. Both Emma Woodhouse and Wilmet don’t see the obvious–the stuff that everyone else around them understands, and yet Emma and Wilmet are never the object of ridicule. While other books delve into the depths of passion through adultery and dynamic love affairs conducted by bored married women, Wilmet, without consciously realizing it, toys with these notions through the somewhat awkward attentions of her best friend Rowena’s husband, and the ever-growing importance she places on her friendship with Piers. Other quiet dramas in the novel concern Sybil and Wilmet’s Portuguese lessons, where the new curate, the very good-looking Father Ransome will live, the excitement of  blood donation, committee meetings, a trip to the hairdressers, and various ecclesiastical events.

Rather refreshingly, Sybil as Wilmet’s mother-in-law is an interesting character who likes her daughter-in-law. She is sympathetic to women who are married and juggle work and home responsibilities, considering them “splendid and formidable.”

I read in the paper the other day of a woman civil servant who was discovered preparing Brussels Sprouts behind a filing cabinet–poor thing, I suppose she felt it would save a few precious ten minutes when she got home.

Since a great deal of the novel concerns Wilmet trying to find a spot for herself in the world, it should come as no surprise that various characters possess specific notions of what a woman should and shouldn’t do. In one scene, for example, a colleague of Rodney’s comes to dinner and Wilmet asks for a dry Martini:

A shadow, surely of displeasure, seemed to cross James Cash’s face, and I guessed that he was probably one of those men who disapprove of women drinking spirits –or indeed of anyone drinking gin before a meal.

Part of Wilmet’s charm, and she really is very charming, is that she doesn’t really ever grasp what is wrong with her life and yet she doesn’t explicitly complain or even recognize that in many ways she’s caught in a shifting time. She’s the class of woman who’s not supposed to work, and since she has no home or children to occupy her, that leaves charity work–something that doesn’t have a strong appeal.  She’s “tried one or two part-time jobs,” but Rodney has “old-fashioned idea that wives should not work unless it was financially necessary.” While there’s no economic hardship, and Wilmet is very well taken care of (some could say pampered) she’s adrift without even fully realizing it. She’s so naïve that she doesn’t realize that she faces a quiet crisis in her life and in her marriage.

Here’s Wilmet thinking about her birthday present from her husband:

“And that reminds me, I saw Griffin at lunchtime and arranged about your present.”

“Thank you, darling.” Mr. Griffin was Rodney’s bank manager. I imagined the scene, dry and businesslike: the transfer of a substantial sum of money to my account, nothing really spontaneous or romantic about it. Still, perhaps something good and solid like money was better than the extravagant bottle of French scent that some husbands–my friend Rowena’s, for example–might have given. And the whole thing was somehow characteristic of Rodney and those peculiarly English qualities which had seemed so lovable when we had first met in Italy during the war and I had been homesick for damp green English churchyards and intellectual walks and talks in the park on a Saturday afternoon.

A great deal of Wilmet’s time is spent either thinking about the local church, St Luke’s with its High Anglican ceremonies or attending social events there. But in spite of this, A Glass of Blessings is not a religious novel in any sense of the word, so religious faith or conversion doesn’t appear–although Wilmet does make a rather limp effort to drag Piers off to various services. The church is seen as the centre of Wilmet’s life, and so the focus is on the impact created by the installation of a new male housekeeper at the vicarage who lavishes the rather worldly, and soon-to-retire father Thames with exotic dishes while bemoaning the plebian, boorish tastes of the much more down-to-earth Father Bode. Not everyone in the novel has religious beliefs. Wilmet’s mother-in-law, Sybil and her  “ bleakly courageous agnosticism”  is shared by her son, and Piers is an atheist. Sybil also believes in ‘good works’ through social endeavors, and while her interests do not enter the realm of ecclesiastical authority, she supports Wilmet in her church functions and attends tea parties with some of the parishioners including “distressed gentlewoman” the heavily-rouged Miss Prideaux.

Back to commonalities with Austen, Pym is also very generous to her characters. Both authors find the foibles of human nature greatly amusing, and both authors find rich material in daily life and in the social exchanges between characters.  A Glass of Blessings is the marvelous story of Wilmet’s maturation–not a particularly easy process for someone who is protected from the harsh realities of the world.

Review copy.

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15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pym, Barbara

15 responses to “A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

  1. I love the idea of a mother – in – law who likes her daughter in law! Based on my observations this is actually very common in real life. More writers need to avoid stereotypes and cliches!

    • One of Pym’s themes is the relationships between women, and in her novels the men appear to operate exclusively outside of the sphere of women. Agree re: clichés–Wilmet and Sybil get along refreshingly well.

  2. I’m very fond of Barbara Pym and you just reminded me of a few unread books on my piles. I guess she is underrated, yes. Maybe that she is generous to her charcaters is part of the reason. I find her writing is very gentle, empathic. Even her humour is gentle, not mordant.

  3. I keep meaning to finally read a Pym — so many thanks for the handy reminder. My impression is that she is a bit of a latter-day Trollope (whom I appreciate very much) and this review tends to support that.

  4. I’d read about saving time on gym class by working out arms, abs and perineum (yes, I got the word right) in the office but the idea of cooking Brussels Sprouts (yuck) in a corner is positively endearing.
    Are you aiming at making me break my no-book-buying vow? I’m so tempted by this book. I was hooked by the reference to Emma (a book I love, I find her funny) and then this quote about Brussels Sprouts! I was imaging the faces of my team if their boss started to cook diner in her office to save time later.

    And the quote about the birthday gift made me chuckle too.

    OK, it goes to the virtual TBR on Goodreads. It’s not the same as the real TBR, is it? :-)

  5. It sounds charming. There is something attractive in a compassionate author.

    Child narrators are the classic (and often badly done) oblivious narrators. Paddy Clarke in Paddy Clarke ha ha ha for example, who has no real idea what’s going on around him for the bulk of that (very good) book.

    Is this the Pym you’d recommend starting with, if you were to recommend a particular one?

  6. There are so many writers of that period who’s work seems to be getting lost in the mists of time. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Pym was so very popular, particularly in library borrowings. What I liked about her was that although she herself was quite religious, Pym was so penetrating when dealing with church and clergy. I seem to remember her books (I haven’t read one for some time), being full of subtle social commentary too. A very fine writer indeed.

    I suppose the flood of new writers soon covers over the remnants of older ones in today’s frenetic publishing world but I am sure Pym will live on just as Graham Greene has. I sometimes think I must do a mini-Somerset Maugham revival. He is so terribly out of fashion.

    • I’m a fellow Maugham fan, Tom. He’s one of my all-time favs.

      • Writers do wander out of fashion, and occasionally back in. I wonder if Greene’s star is fading a bit now, perhaps not but he has a longevity many of his equally talented peers could envy. It’s a bit random. Maugham was seen as one of the greats, and perhaps will be again.

        The pleasing thought is that at least with these writers disappearing from popular awareness it means they can be discovered again. Even now someone somewhere will be picking up a Maugham, wondering what sort of writer he was and then discovering that, actually, he’s their sort of writer.

  7. I’ve only read one Pym so far but this sounds like a lovely second, especially since I enjoyed the two Trollopes I’ve tried. :)

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