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A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym – of quiet amusement and kindnesses

Wilmet Forsyth is well dressed, well looked after, suitably husbanded, good-looking and fairly young – but very bored. Her sober husband Rodney, who works at the Ministry, is slightly balder and fatter than he once was. Wilmet would like to think she has changed rather less. Her interest wanders to the nearby church, where she can neglect her comfortable household in the more serious-minded company of three unmarried priests, and, of course, Piers Longridge, a man of an unfathomably different character altogether.

HAPPY READS

This is a deeply quiet (a term I will no doubt use frequently in this review, so please bear with me …) book, so not an obvious one for my Happy Reads series but, although it didn’t make me laugh out loud, it certainly did raise a smile or two, several times. I have to admit however that it took me a while to thoroughly warm to our heroine, Wilmet Forsyth, who starts off, as the blurb puts it, as well-looked after but essentially bored. This isn’t because Wilmet is unlikeable at all, but I think it’s rather because the novel possesses a more measured narrative approach than I would necessarily choose, so I found myself having to alter my expectations in order to align myself more closely with its inner world. That’s no bad thing – reading is about challenging oneself after all. And in this case the “challenge” isn’t to do with the way the prose is written as it’s eminently readable in every way. Wilmet is a more reflective character than the average heroine (if such a figure even exists) and is by nature an observer rather than a do-er – a personality trait that might have added to my sense of being distanced, at least initially. Here she is pondering the mysteries of buses:

I did not tend to visit the parts of London where they operated. I had noticed them sometimes going to places that seemed impossibly remote and even romantically inviting, but I had never been bold enough to risk the almost certain disillusionment waiting at the other end.

Ah, how like buses today indeed. All of which odd ramblings boils down to the fact that Wilmet grew on me. A great deal in fact. It wasn’t a book I couldn’t put down, but it was a book I definitely wanted to read every word of (increasingly rare, alas), in case I missed something, and it was also one I most definitely wanted to finish. Really, it’s the subtlety of the writing and the little clues as to what’s actually going on that are a surprising delight. We are rarely directly told anything, and indeed there’s much that the heroine herself doesn’t realise or doesn’t understand till later in spite of her powers of observation; so when it comes to the story and the woman, there is a great deal we have to interpret from those clues.

Not that much actually happens to Wilmet herself, although many things happen to those around her, not all of which her astuteness permits her to interpret correctly. Plus her opinions about people and events are naturally coloured by her own emotions and needs, all of which make her in some respects a rather unreliable narrator, although one who learns wisdom and see things more clearly at the end of the book, a factor that adds much to her and the story’s quiet charms. In terms of narrative facts at their most stark, there are not one, but two surprising marriages, a mysterious gift, an unexpected relationship, a nearly-affair that doesn’t (and can’t) go anywhere and some delicate and very accurate portrayals of friendship. None of this is at all dramatic however, thank goodness, as Pym’s undoubted literary skills lie in the miniature and the almost-unseen, the precise observations about society and people, and the deep undercurrent of kindness. It’s quietly powerful stuff.

Pym is also very adept at describing the underlying richness of people in what they say and do. I enjoyed Wilmet’s mother in law, the wonderful Sybil, who when we first meet her is trying to arrange some recalcitrant flowers and comes out with the line: ‘… there seems to be something evil and malignant about chrysanthemums.’

Bliss. I do so agree. There’s also a glorious conversation between Sybil and Rodney at the dinner table that I really must quote, and all the more so as it has exactly the right balance of wit and observation that characterises this book to the full:

‘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.

Another factor that pleased me greatly was that there was a lot to do with Wilmet’s church and her contact with church people in the novel, and these passages are written with equal parts affection and irony – for me as a semi-regular churchgoer and church event attendee, it all rang very true, in spite of being written fifty years ago. How some things at heart never change, particularly Anglicanism … The conversations between the priests and the amount of small details that go hand-in-hand with church life were very accurate, and I did enjoy the mixture of amused bewilderment and affection with which Wilmet reports matters such as the ownership of vestments, what food to eat during Lent, and the ongoing difficulties of the sermon. Ah, how I sympathise. That said, it’s not simply a “church novel”, but one that could be happily read by anyone; people are always people, after all, no matter what contexts you find them in. Part of the trick of this is the use of Wilmet’s distinctive voice when describing church matters. Here, for instance, is a scene in which our heroine has been mistaken by the vicarage housekeeper for someone who telephoned the vicarage:

‘Oh, I don’t know, and I see now that it couldn’t have been you. This lady was asking for the times for the Imposition of Ashes, and you already knew the times, of course. She had a deep very cultured voice.’
A deep very cultured voice asking the times for the Imposition of Ashes – I wondered if I should have liked to think of myself like that. It seemed an ideal to aim at for Lent. I felt in a way that I had already fallen short by not being that woman.

There are also other scenes which stand out for me, such as the priest’s delightful and very humane reaction to the casual ‘borrowing’ of some of his items by his aforementioned housekeeper. And I also enjoyed seeing how Wilmet’s attitude to her marriage and indeed her own life changes and how she becomes more gracious both to herself and others as the novel progresses. It was very life-enhancing in an understated way, and indeed there are many courtesies shown by the wide variety of characters in the book.

In essence, therefore, this is a novel of kindnesses observed and gracefully appreciated. Which is very much the tone of the novel, and might just be the right note to end on. I (quietly) recommend it.

Happy Read rating: 6 out of 10 – quietly amusing.
Literary Rating (in case you might be put off by the above rating): 9 out of 10.

A Glass of Blessings, Virago Modern Classics (my edition 2009), ISBN: 978 1 84408 580 4

[Anne is delighted to discover quiet irony in books, particularly as her own brand of irony is rather loud. She has also written her own church novel, of sorts.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

20 comments on “A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym – of quiet amusement and kindnesses

  1. Hilary
    November 25, 2010

    Thank you Anne! What a lovely review of a favourite novel of mine. I’ve loved Barbara Pym’s novels with a passion, since she was rediscovered in the 70s. I think her two finest, A Glass Of Blessings, and Excellent Women, are uniquely wonderful. I know no other novels like them, extracting so much from almost nothing at all.

    Quiet is a good word to help us understand this uniqueness. The ‘C of E’ element appeals to me as well – very wry. I was knee-deep in our parish Christmas Fair last weekend, and Barbara Pym was never far from my mind as I set out my cake-stall.

    I also enjoy what I can only describe as the bat-squeaks of the characters’ sexuality, barely discernible in the narrative. So quietly clever.

  2. annebrooke
    November 25, 2010

    Thanks, Hilary! I’m sure Pym would have loved that Christmas Fair … 🙂 And I must add more of her novels to my list – thanks for the tip!

    Anne
    xxx

  3. John
    November 25, 2010

    A beautiful book review that really highlights what makes the book stand out. There are not many reviews which actually provoke a reader of limited means to go and seek out a copy on the strength of the review alone, but I have made a note of this book’s title so there you go.
    Jon.

  4. annebrooke
    November 25, 2010

    Thanks, John – I hope you enjoy the book! 🙂

  5. harrisonsolow
    November 25, 2010

    Beautifully done review, Anne, measured, fair and astute – a pleasure to read. I particularly appreciated your coverage of the humanity and depth behind the charm of this book, one of my particular Pym favourites. Thank you!

    ~ Harrison Solow, author of Felicity & Barbara Pym
    http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com/

  6. Conor
    November 25, 2010

    I’ve just read this and ‘Excellent Women’ and am delighted to find someone who comes close to providing the rewards of Jane Austen. The more I thought back on the book, the better it became, as things fell into place so subtly. The pent-up frustrations, the overflowing but understated desires and the shocking developments are very well handled, and it is pleasantly surprising how modern in attitudes this 1958 novel is. It made me laugh out loud when someone admitted to a dangerous liaison with a character from ‘Jane and Prudence’, and the final page of Chapter 1 made me gasp, as it hit me with one felicity after another.
    I’m amazed you gave it 6 out of 10, Anne, in your otherwise excellent review. I read Turgenev’s short novel ‘First Love’ just before it, and that has been called “the best love story I know” by Betjeman and “one of the few perfect achievements in fiction” by David Cecil, but ‘A Glass of Blessings’, a similar novel in many ways, gave just as much pleasure and was beautifully written throughout, so what does Pym need to do to be given a ten, change her name?

  7. annebrooke
    November 25, 2010

    Thanks, Harrison & Conor!

    Conor: my 6 rating was for the Happy Reads marker. It didn’t make me laugh out loud, which is what my Happy Reads rating series is about. However, the book did affect me to the good in other ways, which is why I also added in a Literary rating of 9 out of 10, to avoid confusion (that alas does not seem to have been avoided!). I gave it a 9 under this header as it did take me a while to get into it. I hope that clears up the issue.

    Anne

  8. Lisa
    November 25, 2010

    Super review, Anne. I am going to read this over Christmas. Will let you know what I make of it. Many thanks.

  9. Nikki
    November 25, 2010

    Barbara Pym is a familiar name to me (I couldn’t say why). I’ve never read anything by her though so maybe I should. This seems a good place to start! Thank you, Anne.

  10. annebrooke
    November 25, 2010

    Enjoy, Lisa & Nikki! 🙂

  11. Jackie
    November 25, 2010

    I read a lot of Pym in my twenties, so was looking forward to this review & it didn’t disappoint. The word “quiet” is appropriate, as you say, since there is so much bubbling underneath that placid exterior of her characters. Like you, I also enjoyed the subtle humor & insight into people’s personalities that Pym is so very good at. The rhubarb quote had me laughing here.
    You’ve made me want to reread some of Pym’s novels again. Thanks for this lovely review.

  12. annebrooke
    November 25, 2010

    Yes, as a lover of rhubarb, I was amused by that! Thanks, Jackie 🙂

  13. Tom Sopko
    November 26, 2010

    This is a lovely review, thank you so much for sharing it. Many contemporary readers find that they have to slow down when reading Barbara Pym; on the surface they may appear to be “books about nothing,” since it is not the events described but her narrators’ inner observations and reactions that make the books uniquely hers. There is a lot of wry humor and irony as well as more than a little private torment and disappointment lurking under the well-bred, well-mannered surface of her novels.

    Readers who enjoy this novel might be interested in the papers presented at the most recent North American Conference of the Barbara Pym Society, which focused on A Glass of Blessings. They are the first six items listed at http://www.barbara-pym.org/Conference_papers.html .

    Tom Sopko
    North American Organizer for The Barbara Pym Society

  14. annebrooke
    November 26, 2010

    Thanks for the comments, Tom – and many thanks for dropping in, and for the link also. I shall certainly be reading more of Pym’s work in the future.

    All good wishes!

    Anne

  15. Hilary
    November 27, 2010

    Anne – I think Excellent Women surpasses A Glass Of Blessings, and I’m sure you would enjoy it. Both are also thoroughly London novels – Barbara Pym has a wonderful sense of place regarding London, especially the rather less fashionable parts, which seems rather to break down when she writes of other places. It’s one of the subtle pleasures for me, the way London comes so vividly to life in her novels. Having said that, I’m also very fond of Some Tame Gazelle (not London-set), an earlier novel, and more exuberant than EW or AGOB, but which feeds my addiction for her church-themed novels.

  16. annebrooke
    November 27, 2010

    Thanks, Hilary – my reading list grows apace! 🙂

  17. Donna
    May 18, 2013

    What a wonderful review. You captured the many beguiling facets of a Pym novel. I was wondering though what novels rated a 9 or 10 on your happy reads index. Tried searching for this to no avail

  18. Pingback: Sybil arranged the flowers in a heavy cut glass vase, rather badly. | Pechorin's Journal

  19. Pingback: Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence | Vulpes Libris

  20. ninevoices
    June 1, 2016

    ‘…A novel of kindness observed and gracefully appreciated.’ You have brought out in this marvellous review the underlying goodness in Barbara Pym’s world view – the way she accepts people as they are, pokes fun without ever being cruel, and gives a sense of human togetherness with every individual being of unique value. One of the aspects I love most about A Glass of Blessings is the quiet acceptance of homosexuality as a natural part of life. Rather touchingly Piers and Keith reappear in No Fond Return of Love, still together and on holiday with Wilmet and Rodney.

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