A Glass of Blessings is the May read for members of the Librarything Virago group who are taking part in the Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long – due to my birthday reading project in May I decided to read it early. A Glass of Blessings is one of the ten Pym novels I had read before – but I have to say I hadn’t remembered much about it. I have heard a few people say that it is their favourite Pym novel, and although it isn’t my favourite, I enjoyed it enormously. It feels very much like a quintessential Pym novel – so therefore for a Pym fan – what’s not to like?
“Oh Wilmet, life is perfect now! I’ve got everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it’s like a glass of blessings – life, I mean…”
“That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn’t it?” I said. ‘When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by …”
“But don’t forget that other line … how when all the other blessing had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass…
In ‘A Glass of Blessings’ we are back in the familiar parochial territory that we first encountered in Some Tame Gazelle, Jane and Prudence and Excellent Women. Wilmet Forsyth is our narrator, in her early thirties; she is a nicely mannered well-dressed attender of high Anglican services. She lives in her mother-in-law’s house with her husband Rodney in a respectable suburb of London. Not having really very much to do, Wilmet likes to believe she is able to do good to others, accompanying her mother-in-law to The Settlement – an institution of some unspecified charitable kind – where the exceptionally good, but rather drab Mary Beamish is often to be found. However Wilmet is bored, her husband is slipping into comfortable middle-age – a little fatter and balder than when she had first met him, with his job in The Ministry that he disappears to each day. Wilmet contents herself with the company of three local unmarried priests – helping with the search of a new housekeeper for the clergy house, introducing them to Bason who had previously worked at The Ministry with her husband – a job Bason had proved unsuited for.
“Now’ said Mr Bason moving us on like a guide. ‘I think we might take the merest peep in Father Thames’s study. I expect you would like to see that.’
He had already opened the door before we could express any opinion and I crept forward rather guiltily as if expecting some kind of retribution to fall on me.
The first impression was of a rather crowded museum, for there seemed to be a great many objects arranged in glass-fronted cabinets and on the mantelpiece. The room was dominated by an enormous desk of some rich-looking wood. This rather surprised me, for I had not hitherto had the impression that Father Thames was the scholarly type of clergyman; though, on thinking it over, I supposed that every parish priest must have a large desk, if only to answer his correspondence and prepare his sermons.”
Also providing a welcome distraction – which starts to almost become a rather unsuitable infatuation – is Piers Longridge – the rather unsuccessful brother of Wilmet’s best friend Rowena. Piers works as a proof reader – and teaches Portuguese at night classes that Wilmet and Sybil –her mother-in-law decides to attend.
Wilmet is a likeable character although she seems quite vain, constantly examining herself and her motivations, she often sees herself as not being quite as good as she might be. Wilmet often fails to understand the people around her including her husband and especially Piers, her imagination really running away with itself at times. As the novel progresses Wilmet begins to learn something about love and her relationships with the people in her life, beginning to appreciate the friendship of Mary Beamish rather more than she had done previously. Sybil provides a lively contrast to her daughter-in-law – living life to the full, springing a surprise of her own in the end and proving that she at least has a positive attitude to life and the living of it.
Readers of previous Pym novels will be delighted with the references to characters from Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence – there is even a passing mention of Archbishop Hoccleve from Some Tame Gazelle. I was rather delighted that Wilmet and her friend Rowena had once nursed tender feelings for Rocky Napier. Pym’s wonderfully dry humour and keen observation help to recreate this world that must now surely be gone forever – if it ever really existed, yet it is a world I feel perfectly happy in.