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/