Rather a horrid person: Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2011

Despite the surface triviality, there’s something else in Barbara Pym’s novels (links to my other posts at the end), a darker seriousness, a moral frailty or ambiguity. OK, on class and social convention she can be pretty starchy – but even then she’s often surprisingly barbed and acerbic. The parish hall teas, clerical gossip and frettings about high-church rituals and practices are the froth at the top of a bracingly bitter cappuccino.

Pym Glass of Blessings cover A Glass of Blessings is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth – an indolent, self-absorbed, attractive thirty-three-year-old who’s become bored with her comfortable bourgeois life of leisure. When she allows herself to examine this life, she admits to feeling ‘guilty’ about her ‘long idle days’ – but is disinclined to do much about it. Her existence revolves around eating and drinking with her female (and sometimes, male) friends, and shopping for expensive fripperies or clothes; she’s a little too proud of her looks, as she reveals in her interior monologue on p. 5 when the handsome young Piers Longridge has told her she looks ‘particularly charming’:

I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction. Today I was in pale coffee brown with touches of black and coral jewellery. Rodney seldom commented on my appearance now and Piers had that engaging air of making me feel that he meant what he said. I was sorry when we came to a crossroads and he said he must leave me.

This revealing passage is typical of Pym’s mastery of that narrative voice that hints more about what Wilmet fails to note than what she does. It shows she’s vain and bored enough to feel flattered here, assuming that any man who’s complimented her must have taste – and there’s that indication that her civil servant husband Rodney, who’s becoming bald and stout, fails to show the romance and attentive spontaneity Wilmet craves. It will come as no surprise, if I can avoid spoilers, that her views about such admirers are badly misjudged. Not for nothing does the dashing Rocky Napier, who featured in Excellent Women, represent in Wilmet’s nostalgic recollections of her more exciting past as a Wren in wartime Italy the kind of dashing, dastardly and good-looking type that she likes to fall for – only later to be disappointed.

The title of A Glass of Blessings, as revealed near the end, comes from one of those poems Pym’s women characters are fond of quoting, in this case ‘The Pulley’ by George Herbert. Wilmet has sought diversion from her idle routine by attending the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of the novel involves her discovering the secrets and foibles of its clergy and congregation. It’s this aspect that provides most of the novel’s delightfully skewed humour, from the kleptomaniac, camp Bason, the housekeeper/cook for the celibate priests, to Mr Coleman, too fond of the tailor-made silk cassock he affects when serving in church ceremonies, and of his Husky (a make of car, not, as Wilmet vaguely assumes, a ‘large polar dog’). These beautifully sketched characters are deployed with poised, spiky skill by Pym; the plot is secondary to this parade of minor egotists and misfits.

In Herbert’s poem God generously bestows all those ‘blessings’ from his glass, with only ‘rest’ left in the bottom. This he withholds, realising that if he gives humanity this, they will tend to become complacent, and both will ‘lose’. This is the lesson Wilmet learns: to be content with what she has, and appreciate her ‘repining restlessness’ for what it teaches: be more aware of her weaknesses, and more attentive in her relations with other people. She’s far too quick to judge others by their appearance, and complacent about her own moral rectitude because she looks good.

There’s a surprising amount of flirting and erotic dalliance, even among the married characters. Near the end, when Wilmet discovers that dull Rodney has, like her, had his head turned by someone else, she muses this ‘ought to teach me something about myself, even if I was not yet quite sure what it was.’

Her name is taken from the massive family saga The Pillars of the House by now-neglected Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge, who was, like Pym, high church by inclination, and surprisingly frank about all varieties of sexual inclination – as indeed Pym is in this novel.

Another interesting factor in a Pym novel: literary allusions, like clothes, reveal a great deal about character (apart from Herbert, Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Donne and Marvell, for example, are alluded to in this way in the narrative).

Wilmet indulges a suspicion that another handsome young man – the new assistant priest – fancies her; another harsh lesson in self-knowledge is administered when she learns with astonishment that ‘dim and mousy’ (as Wilmet sees her) Mary Beamish has become engaged to him. It’s to Wilmet’s credit that she quickly reproaches herself for such an ‘unworthy thought’. Every time she shows herself as snobbish, she redeems herself with her immediate sense of shame.

Her most painful lesson comes when Piers suggests that Wilmet is too circumscribed by her own ‘narrow select little circle’ and is one of those who are ‘less capable of loving their fellow human beings.’ She’s devastated, and feels close to tears:

Perhaps I had never really known him, or – what was worse – myself. That anyone could doubt my capacity to love!

That ‘perhaps’ is brilliant, and so is the exclamation mark. She goes on to concede that perhaps she’s not as ‘nice’ as she’d thought, and might really be ‘rather a horrid person’ – and this is ‘humiliating’. It’s her Emma and Miss Bates moment.

Despite such defects in her personality, Wilmet engages one’s interest and sympathy. Pym never judges her characters, and she leaves us with the sense that we are all of us as flawed and ‘restless’ as Wilmet.

I had hoped to write about the importance of clothes and appearance, but I’ve been forestalled by this excellent, detailed essay by Sandra Goldstein; I recommend it.

There’s a lot of interesting, sharp observation about the self-centred pomposity of men and their selfish way of taking their long suffering womenfolk for granted. When she’s being clear-eyed Wilmet sees them at a cocktail party as they mostly are: ‘sheepish’, then more like ‘bears’ or snuffling badgers. Unfortunately she loses perspective when they flatter her vanity.

A whole different post could be written about the wonderfully dry, shrewd Sybil (aptly named), Wilmet’s mother-in-law (she announces at the end of a dinner party, as the women are about to leave the men to drink their port: ‘Women are supposed not to like port except in a rather vulgar way’); maybe she’s meant to represent what Wilmet might grow up to be like when she reaches her late sixties and has learnt more about herself, men and life.

My previous Pym posts:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnet

Jane and Prudence

Heaven Ali blog post 2013: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/a-glass-of-blessings-barbara-pym-1958/

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Rather a horrid person: Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

  1. Fabulous review. I have read this novel twice, and yet I would say its definitely not a particular favourite. I love the character of Bason, but I could never quite take to Wilmet as much as other Pym characters. She is quite brilliantly observed though, a complex, flawed character who Pym presents with fully rounded.

    • Heavenali: thanks. It’s not my favourite Pym novel, either, but still great fun. As you say, it’s Wilmet’s flawed vulnerability that endears her to me. I hate the facile comparisons to Jane Austen, but there’s a lot of Emma in such a character: that attractive wrongheadedness and longing to be admired for the wrong reasons…

  2. Enjoyed this very much, Simon! I think Barbara Pym, along with Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, and their slightly more worldly sister, Edith Wharton, are perfect examples of sublime artists, who are born into a variety of environments, but within even the most barren of ground, can find amazing richness, both of the light and the dark variety. In amusing contrast, I find Hemingway their mirror opposite. All the wandering, travel, fights, food, and sex the world can offer, and he still has that Hemingway ego and solipsism that led to such hilarious satires of his stories (especially by the brilliant wits at the “blue-stocking” oriented, late-lamented “Toast” website).

    With Pym, the churches, the flower arranging, village life and the “class and social convention” you mention are merely the milieu. She could just as well have been on the cold streets of Washington DC’s African American “hoods” in the world of another transcendant, Edward P. Jones. Other places I can think of are Dickens London, or the earlier London Town of Shakespeare, or Joyce’s Dublin. Pym would eye the human beast in any of these places and times, and takes its measure, not with malice or a desire to mock, but with a fair but merciless eye.

    Wonderful job! P.S. Loved the story of the fun trip of the Tredynas GrandParents, Daughter-In-Law and Grandkids!

    Maureen

    • Thanks, Maureen. You mention a few names I’m not familiar with, to my shame, so must do a bit of research. I agree that BP writes about the world she knows, that ‘milieu’ she inhabited: it’s not her fault that she didn’t live in a more superficially dramatic location. That infamous reference to Jane Austen’s little bit of carved ivory is condescending, but there’s a certain truth in it: a narrow, enclosed social group is minutely anatomised to withering effect. One doesn’t have to be ‘High Church’ to respond to them. Jonathan Swift’s words in his own elegy come to mind when I read what you say about her not ‘mocking’; he points out that he only savages those who should know, and could do, better. So glad you liked my little aside about St Michael’s Mount!

  3. I loved this review and the phrase “a bracingly bitter cappuccino” is just brilliant. This and the other Pym posts have led me to hope that Santa might bring me some Pym cheer at Christmas

  4. Very nice. I reviewed this one at mine and rather loved it. I’m glad to hear there may well be better. Loved too your line “the froth at the top of a bracingly bitter cappuccino” which is brilliant.

  5. Great analysis and review: I really like this book, partly because Wilmet is so very much NOT Pym herself, whereas her other heroines can become same-y. Now I really want to re-read it.
    I think we get a glimpse of Wilmet in a later Pym book, just a short encounter in an antique shop (?) and I enjoyed that. Philip Larkin told Pym off for her habit of dropping characters in from a previous book – I can see what he means, but I quite like it…
    And – of course – I loved the link to the piece on clothes: thanks for that.

    • I’m glad you liked that linked article, Moira – I knew you would! And thanks for those kind words. Yes, it is unusual for a BP heroine to be so chic & attractive- but she does it with panache

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