A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

50s-cocktail-party

While chuckling away quietly to myself as I read this book, I kept wondering why I don’t read Barbara Pym more often. She writes with a dry, well observed wit that is eerily reminiscent of Jane Austen; I can completely see why Philip Larkin so famously made the comparison between the two. Though her novels are usually set in upper middle class communities that revolve around churches and their congregations, there is nothing old fashioned or elitist about them; the voices of her narrators feel fresh and modern, and many of the situations her characters find themselves in are hilariously recognisable. This being my third Pym, I have to say that I probably enjoyed it the most of all I’ve read so far; there are so many brilliant characters that it is hard to not spend the entirety of the reading experience laughing out loud.

Wilmet Forsyth is an attractive and literate woman in her early thirties, who lives in Kensington with her perfectly nice husband and intellectual, witty mother in law Sybil. Wilmet lives a rather shallow existence; comfortably housed, well off, and with no children or job to occupy her time, she often finds her days empty and rather aimless. Her closest friend Rowena, who lives in Surrey, is preoccupied with her children; Sybil has an all-absorbing interest in archaeology, and Rodney, no longer quite as handsome as he once was, is busy with his unspecified job at the Ministry, and their marriage lacks passion. Naturally, therefore, Wilmet finds herself gravitating towards the local church, where there is always plenty of minor intrigue with which to become involved. A new, handsome priest arrives, much to the joy of the female congregants; Wilmet helps to find a new housekeeper for the clergy house, who turns out to be quite the eccentric, and Mary, a put upon spinster of Wilmet’s age, is crying out for the guidance of a more wordly woman. Amidst all of this drama, Sybil suggests that she and Wilmet attend the Portuguese lessons taught by Rowena’s dashing brother, Piers, and Wilmet finds herself rather more interested in Piers than Portuguese…

There is so much richness to the plot of this novel, so many fascinating and hilarious characters, and plenty of surprises to delight  the reader. I particularly loved the Mr Collins-esque housekeeper, Mr Bason, whose attempts at haute cuisine at the clergy house often go unappreciated, and Keith, Piers’ flatmate, who takes a very passionate interest in home decoration. This is the sort of book you can sink into, get lost in, and laugh out loud at, being reminded all the time of similar incidents and people in your own life that add to the piquancy of Pym’s always so apt observations. Wilmet is an intriguing narrator; she is blind to much of what goes on around her, and cannot always see her own privilege, but this only serves to make her pleasantly flawed, and she is very likeable indeed. I loved every minute in her company, and I already can’t wait to read my next Pym. I think she may have become one of my favourite authors; if you’ve never given her a try, you really are missing out!

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40 comments

  1. One of my husbands favorite writers…recently convinced me, my daughter and daughter in law to read them…a joy, subtle, witty and well written

  2. This is my favourite Barbara Pym. Wilmet, along with Prudence (of Jane & Prudence) are my favourite chracters. I think mostly for wish-fulfilment; I am jealous of their self-absorption, obsession with fashion and decoration and their entertaining vanity. I also appreciate how Pym does not treat them judgementally – there are plenty of women like that in the world, and their stories are no less enjoyable for it.
    I also look to them for a few lessons – one of my favourite scenes in any book is the chapter after Prudence has been jilted by Fabien. I love how she “makes a good breakfast”, as she may be too upset to eat later; and the care with which she later chooses tiny treats for her lunch as “today, she must be very, very kind to herself”. Not only good advice, but eminently sensible. It is refreshing for a female character in that era of novel to not be wearing herself out putting everyone else first.
    if you can get hold of it, I truly recommend Barbara Pyms autobiography/diaries, which is called A Very Private Eye, and also the collection of her unpublished stories Civil To Strangers. I’m not sure it is critically considered her best work, but I enjoyed it as 2 of the stories were set in Hungary and pre-WW2 Finland, places she visited, and they are quite evocative travel pieces.
    And, as I’m here, I would urge you (and anyone else) to find an afternoon to read High Rising by Angela Thirkell. I’m afraid it is my book I try to force on people (we all have one!). It is very funny, very entertaining, and it is well worth reading to be introduced to the character of Tony Morland. Thirkell is an amusing writer but is very good at crafting scenes of poignancy and pathos about the futility or small sadnesses in womens lives and I love her. I would wholly recommend any of the books that Vintage have brought back into print (with a small addendum that it as they form part of a series, it may help to read them chronologically – helpfully High Rising is the first)

    1. Some very nice blogger, unfortunately I forget who, gave me a stack of Thirkell because of my love of Pym. I have yet to read an of them, I can see I need to rectify that. Good to know that I should read High Rising first.

      1. All I can say is: you lucky, lucky thing! I have been hunting 2nd hand editions forever. Thirkell is definitely lighter than Pym – they could quite convincingly steal the plot of Pomfret Towers for an episode of Downton Abbey – but I really hope you enjoy them :)

      2. This is my favourite quote from High Rising (it is regarding the central character, Laura – a widow – and her youngest son Tony):
        She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers , partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government; partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit. She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contempories. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive. :)

    2. I love what you say here, Lizzie – I quite agree with you about Wilmet and Prudence. These kinds of women would normally be derided in most literary fiction but actually there is much to admire in them and you can tell Pym thinks so too. Such praise of Thirkell says I need to try her, pronto – I will follow your advice. Thank you!

  3. There are some beautifully, gently absurb moments in this aren’t there Rachel. I agree, she is one of my favourite mid 20thC authors, along with Sybille Bedford, Rose Macauley and Ann Bridge. My top favourite Pym novels are Some Tame Gazelle and Crampton Hodnet. And yes there are some laugh out loud moments in this one! Do you think she also has a touch of E.F Benson along with Jane Austen? Lv, Merenia x

    1. We have such similar tastes, Merenia! :) I haven’t read either of your favourite Pyms yet – still lots to get to, all of which I am looking forward to reading very much! I’ve only ever read one E F Benson and wasn’t bowled over, though I do need to get to Mapp and Lucia as everyone says they love it so much! x

  4. It’s no secret I love Pym, but the more I read her, the more I think she is truly in a league of her own. It’s not just that her writing has all of the qualities you write about, but that they have been distilled into such perfect works of art where not a word is wasted.

    1. I thought of you and your love of Pym while reading it, actually, Thomas! You are quite right – I don’t think anyone else has quite touched her style and precision in managing to capture the absurdity of everyday life.

  5. I absolutely love this book and love Pym in general. I’ve had some embarrassing moments on trains when I’ve been unable to stop myself laughing aloud when I’m reading one of her books. I have to say that I have not got on with Thirkell, though.

    1. Ha! I love doing that! I’ve never tried Thirkell, so I shall have to give her a go and see what I think. She certainly sounds like someone I’d like, but you never know!

  6. Barbara Pym is a superb writer- funny and moving at the same time. How lovely to rediscover her. Quartet in Autumn is my favourite. she is definitely a modern Jane Austen

  7. Barbara Pym is up there in my list, too. She jostles to the top as soon as I put down another oh-so-enjoyable novel, only to be replaced as my memory fades…until I read a review such as your one above, the BP rushes forward again. Her biography in letters, ‘AVery Private Eye’, edited by her friend Hazel Holt, is also worth a read.

    1. Yes, so true – I’ve been meaning to read more Pym for ages, but other books always seem to get in the way. I’d love to read her biography- thanks for the tip!

  8. I love all of her books, but my favorite remains Excellent Women. Although I enjoy Angela Thirkell and have read a number of her books, I don’t find her a writer of the same depth and subtlety as Pym. But once you’ve finished the Pym oeuvre, you can comfort yourself that there are quite a lot of Thirkells to choose from.

  9. You simply have to read Stoner by Williams.

    If you don’t decide it is classic in the making, then I owe you a bottle of malbec

    royston

    PS this is my second recommendation to you – the first was A Month in the Country (Carr) which you liked! So, my batting percentage is 100% thus far and I’m very confident that you’ll iike this one.

    I’ve just read The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford) . A very complex novel and one that i tried twice before to read without success. But this time i sat in the garden and read it in the shade – it really is a very special book.

    1. Thanks Royston – I have been meaning to read that so I will get to it soon and let you know what I think! I remember being underwhelmed by The Good Soldier when I read it a few years ago, but it’s probably time for a revisit.

  10. Ah, Barbara Pym! Your delight leapt from the page and made me want to rush straight back to Pym collection

  11. I so love Barbara Pym. Mr Jason in A Glass of blessings is quite brilliant. I have even found some.of her novels good as they are to be even better second time around.

  12. When I was in college, Barbara Pym was the author commonly recommended once you’ve read all of Austen, so I went and read all of Pym and loved them, though Autumn Quartet does give me pause. Now, years later, I am rereading No Fond Return of Love and am sad to find I’m not really enjoying it. The way the women look toward men for meaning in their lives, the way intelligent educated women content themselves with underwhelming careers–I’m finding it hard to take. I’ve reread other Pyms–though not terribly recently–and not had this reaction, so maybe No Fond Return is just a dud Pym for me.

    1. I think Pym wrote as she found rather than what she believed? Perhaps this was the true state of affairs during the period? Though I’ve never read No Fond Return of Love – it’s next on my list coincidentally. I’ll have to see what I think, though your comment is intriguing.

  13. You are so lucky to have just discovered the marvellous Ms Pym- I raced through all her novels and wish, now, that I’d taken a bit more time to saver them. Hope you’re having a lovely lovely summer break. I definitely am and I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed. I very much enjoyed visiting Dubrovnik and reading Illyrian Spring while I was there- thanks for another fab recommendation. Enjoy your next Barbara Pym, and then perhaps you could try some Elizabeth Taylor who is a little less funny but just as cleverly observed. Xxxx

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