A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym is one of many mid-Century authors to have gone badly out of fashion. In her case it’s perhaps in part because her world of polite dinner parties, mildly worried vicars and comfortably middle-class anxieties seems now at best quaint and at worst precisely the sort of thing the Angry Young Men of the ’50s and ’60s were rebelling against.
Pym however, like P.G. Wodehouse, is an exquisite artist of the utterly unimportant. A Glass of Blessings is one of the finest novels I’ve read this year, and has every chance of making my end of year list.
The narrator, Wilmet Forsyth, is an attractive and fashionable woman who is peacefully but uneventfully married. Her husband, met during the excitement of wartime, is now a responsible civil servant and the pair live with his mother Sybil, who in a distinct contrast to normal stereotypes largely likes and supports Wilmet and has a rather wicked sense of wit in her own right:
‘Thank you,’ said Rodney seriously. ‘We – my wife and mother, rather – are very fond of gooseberries. We often eat them in one form or another.’
‘Perhaps they are more a woman’s fruit,’ said Sybil, ‘like rhubarb. Women are prepared to take trouble with sour and difficult things, whereas men would hardly think it worth while.’
The men were silent for a moment, as if pondering how they might defend themselves or whether that, too, was hardly worth while.
Wilmet’s chief challenge in life is that it’s socially inappropriate for her to work and financially unnecessary, and besides she doesn’t really want a job with all that entails. As she has no children though she has little to fill her days, and the romance of her early years with her husband has long since been replaced with sober contentment. Their marriage is perhaps best captured by her husband’s annual birthday gift for Wilmet, a sensible transfer of a reasonable amount of money into her bank account. It’s practical, but it’s not exactly thrilling.
As I write this it’s a month or so since I read the novel and I find I barely remember the plot, but in fairness there barely is a plot so perhaps it’s not so surprising that it escapes me. Wilmet is active in her local church, and much concerned with the arrival of a handsome new curate and with the mystery represented by the lifestyle of her best friend’s rather unsuitable brother, Piers.
The lack of much of a plot is of course precisely the main challenge Wilmet faces. If there were a plot, if there were events and characters in motion she’d have something to do. Wilmet’s problem is that she’s in stasis. She is, quite simply, bored. She takes to spending her days with Piers, harbouring a slight crush on him and comically unaware that he’s obviously gay. She takes Portuguese lessons with Sybil, helps organise a blood drive and find a new housekeeper for the vicarage. None of it is quite enough and some of it starts therefore to take more weight than it can easily bear:
I began to be ashamed of my lack of experience – I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn’t even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church. But I had done something to make Piers happy and that compensated for everything.
Wilmet has many strengths: she’s intelligent, quick-witted, has a good sense for fashion and colour, is pretty, likable and charming. Unfortunately what she is not is particularly observant. Wilmet is somewhat self-centred, not horribly so but enough that she doesn’t notice most of what’s going on with the other characters in the novel. Wilmet isn’t alone here in facing questions of how to live her life, how to be happy, but almost every major character development comes as a complete surprise to her in part because she doesn’t really expect anything around her ever to change.
Blessings at times has a somewhat wistful feel to it. It’s not that Wilmet wants the world very different than it is, why would she given how well she’s doing from it? It’s just that she wants, well, something else. Something she can’t put her finger on. In a way however it’s very adult. Wilmet may find her husband not quite as exciting as he once was, but that doesn’t mean she wants to trade him in or to discard their marriage and years together. Her problem is the problem faced by many women of her class before it became socially acceptable for them to have jobs – she’s smarter than her allotted role has any need for.
At one point Wilmet’s best friend’s husband makes a pass at her, but while she’s slightly flattered she’s no Madame Bovary and the husband’s certainly no Rodolphe Boulanger. Really they’re all too English to do anything so dramatic as passionate affairs or suicide, it wouldn’t be entirely the done thing. Wilmet tries to spend her time on good works, but others are better at that and she’s clearly just filling time. Her attempts at charity are half-hearted and she’s slightly too cosseted to really understand the needs of the poor:
It made me sad to think of the decay and shabbiness all around, and the streamlined blocks of new flats springing up on the bombed sites, although I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing in the square gardens, their shouts and laughter drowned by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them.
All of which takes me back to P.G. Wodehouse. If people didn’t already know him the idea of a novelist writing about privileged young men in 1920s London stealing policemen’s helmets for a laugh and mooning over pretty waitresses would I suspect sound fairly unappealing. It would be easy to dismiss as fiction best left to its time, but Wodehouse is a genius and his creations though very much of their moment are also timeless.
Wilmet’s world is in some ways further away than Wodehouse’s. I didn’t particularly understand the clerical politics and the postwar society she portrays is far less popular in modern dramas and fiction than Wodehouse’s post-earlier-war period with its country houses and birth of Modernism. It doesn’t matter though, because the novel itself is just as likable and charming as Wilmet. How can you resist a narrator, an author, who writes like this:
At that moment I heard the bell ring and shortly afterwards Sir Denbigh Grote came into the room, rubbing his hands together as if it were a cold afternoon. He looked so much like a retired diplomat is generally supposed to look, even to his monocle, that I never thought of him as being the sort of person one needed to describe in any detail.
I could easily go on quoting. I have more quotes noted from this novel than most others I’ve read recently put together. I’ll allow myself one more, just to reassure those who might be concerned that the novel is somehow religious and worthy. It’s not – the church here fulfils more of a social than spiritual role and Wilmet is very much a woman of this world rather than the next:
On either side of the central space were two large white marble statues, male and female, perhaps representing knowledge and wisdom, courage and hope, or other suitable concepts. I looked down at the female’s great broad white feet and imagined that were she not barefooted she might have trouble with her shoes. I could almost see the incipient bunion and feel the pain of the fallen arch.
It’s not an easy thing to write a novel in which a basically nice character faces very ordinary and undramatic problems and to make it interesting. Really the only other example I can immediately think of is Colm Toibin with his Brooklyn. To do that though and to make it funny too, that really is very impressive indeed – as one of the priests says “it’s the trivial things that matter” and Pym ably proves his point. This is my first Pym, but I don’t intend it to be my last.
Guy Savage alerted me to Barbara Pym and convinced me to read her. His review of Blessings is here. I also found online this review at Vulpes Libris, where interestingly the reviewer is themselves a member of the Church of England and so able to shed a little light on the accuracy of those aspects of the novel. If you know of others, please let me know in the comments. Edit: As mentioned in the comments Kaggsy also reviewed this, and liked it a bit less than I did. Her review, which I recommend as ever, is here.