A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.
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.]