“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.
First 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.
Not 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.