Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Glass of Blessings

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Barbara Pym’s 1958 novel takes a microscope to the mostly uneventful lives of a small parish, exploring many themes familiar to the author’s fiction such as the futility of passion and the many foibles of friends and lovers.

A Glass of Blessings is British novelist Barbara Pym’s fifth novel, and was first published in 1958. Like most of her fiction, it follows the lives of a group of ordinary people living in an ordinary English township. There’s little drama in Pym’s often slyly humorous novels, but rather a careful exploration of middle-class life. Just as Jane Austen claimed to only survey her small social milieu, the same holds true for Pym’s novels, which also feature a strong autobiographical flavour.

Pym at her Most Subtle

The blurb on the front by the poet Philip Larkin (a friend of Pym’s) opines that this is her most subtle work. With this it’s hard to disagree. There is little of the irony and comedy that bubbles underneath her other fiction, replaced here with a more intimate feel. The reader is immersed in the main character, Wilmet Forsyth, as she negotiates her daily life amongst friends, lovers and members of the local parish.

There is barely any plot in A Glass of Blessings. The novel is rather driven by the close interaction of the main characters. Pym’s genius is to take a group of average, middle-class people and show how subtly and yet fundamentally different people can be, how we can misread those close to us, even not understand our very own selves, our desires and motivations.

The novel is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth. She’s married to Rodney Forsyth, who works at the ministry. They both live together with Rodney’s mother, Sybil, who is somewhat of a free-thinking atheist. Wilmet doesn’t have to work, and while she’s not really a bored housewife, she comes fairly close. She thinks up little activities to keep her days full – but not too full, as she’s perhaps just a tad lazy, and is put off by the idea of bustle and noise. You get the impression that it would deeply interfere with her mental equilibrium.

Love at a Safe Distance

Wilmet’s emotional life starts to go a bit off the rails when she commences a mild flirtation with Piers Longridge. As happens in so much of Pym’s fiction, the main characters, the women especially, indulge in love affairs, flirtations and crushes, all from a safe distance. It’s as if these women have the good sense to enjoy the delight and frisson that a love affair may give, but studiously avoid its agonies and pains. For Pym, abstinence seems to be the best policy. Wilmet indulges in some innocuous luncheon dates and tries to figure out if Piers has the same twinkle in the eye that she has. It’s all really just an emotional indulgence, a testing to see if she can rise above her somewhat bland daily life and be an inspiration for love. Matters take an unexpected course when Wilmet is introduced to Piers' roommate, Peter, and she realises all is not what she thought it had seemed.

A Glass of Blessings is perhaps my least favourite of Pym’s novels, yet strangely enough I feel certain that I should like to read it again sometime. The writing is very subtle and nuanced, and I get the impression that a re-reading would bring out new things that I’d missed the first time. The novel doesn’t seem to have a moral or a lesson to teach, but rather gives a slice of life. You get the impression that Pym found writing to be a very therapeutic activity, just as reading her can have the same effect.

A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9781844085804  RRP: $24.99