Paula Byrne’s recent biography of Barbara Pym provided some surprises for those who imagined her as a demure church going spinster. She was shown to have desperate crushes on ambivalent men, who then sometimes ended up as characters in her fiction. I am saving this biography for the end of the year holiday when I can read it at my leisure. In the meantime, I am revisiting some of her fiction, to remind myself what it is about her writing that saw her dropped by Jonathan Cape in the 1960’s only to rise in popularity again ten years later.
A Glass of Blessings was published in 1958 and it signals the beginning of our current era. Characters who are male models, a character who works in a coffee bar, another who has a motor scooter. And male characters who are gay, although this is always implied rather than stated directly. We have the usual Barbara Pym topics. A very High Church of England parish, as High as it can be without actually being Roman Catholic, where Father Thames hears Confession and has difficulty in getting curates and housekeepers. We have the elderly Miss Prideaux who still wears a hat in the house, ‘a little black toque to which a bunch of artificial violets had been pinned at a rather rakish angle’ and her friend Sir Denbigh. But our main character, Wilmet Forsyth, is a youngish married woman.
Wilmet is married to Rodney a civil servant, but in her hey-day she was in the Wrens in Italy. Here she met Rodney who was an officer in the Army, and her best friend Rowena met her husband Harry, another Army officer.
We spent some time reminiscing about our time in Italy – long evening drives in curious army vehicles with now forgotten names, the headlights picking out an urn or a coat of arms on the gateway of some villa, or illuminating a crowd of people in the square of the little town – the rococo dining-rooms of a particular officers’ club where the Asti Spumanto was warm and flat, and there were too many drunken majors…remembered now after ten years this life had a fantastic dream like quality.
Now Rodney is a civil servant and Harry works at Mincing Lane. The men go off to their important jobs each day and return in the evening. Rowena has three children, but Wilmet seems to have given up on the idea of having children. She is not particularly interested in Rowena’s children, either. Wilmet is mostly interested in herself. She gives a great deal of thought to her clothes, and the effect they might create. She is the centre of her own universe, at times a little aimless but always aware of the effect she might be creating. Handsome men have a particular appeal for her. Pleasing attention from a handsome man gives her a feeling of worth. Unfortunate then, that she is interested in Rowena’s brother Piers, tall and handsome of course, but moody and unpredictable. She has an evening with Piers that leaves her happy and elevated, in spite of the fact he wore a duffle coat ‘a garment I do not approve of for grown men’s London wear.’ They take a walk by the river which Wilmet manages with difficulty in her high heels.
It seemed such an unusual thing to be doing, walking by the river on a misty autumn afternoon. The sun was out but would soon be setting, and the light made the water look wonderfully mysterious – a great sheet of pink and silver fading away into the distance – so that one felt the open sea must lie beyond it. The warehouses on the opposite looked like palaces, and the boats glided like gondolas.
This seems to have echoes of her time in Italy, but Piers leaves her puzzled about his feelings for her. It becomes clear that Wilmet, for all her elegance is rather a lost soul. She has vague feeling of wanting to be a better person, but she wants to be adored, and resents it if others are the subject of admiration.
The people whom she takes for granted are I think the most interesting characters. Her mother-in-law Sybil’s zest for life with her interest in archaeology and her close friend the Professor, and her husband Rodney’s sardonic humour are not really appreciated by her. And her living conditions are quite odd; they live in Sybil’s house and are served by her cook. Wilmet seems to have no responsibilities, or to have any sense that this is a strange way to live.
By the end of the book, she has learned a few hard lessons and, possibly, to value Rodney a little more.
This book works on many levels. Wilmet is a complex character. She can be snobbish and conceited, but then act from generous impulses. And of course we meet so many delicious minor characters, Marius, Mr Bason, Mary Beamish, Mr Coleman with His beloved Husky car…I could go on.
Why not read it for yourself.