This is my review of “A Glass of Blessings” by Barbara Pym.
With her coolly ironic appraisal of well-heeled middle-class life in 1950s London, Wilmet Forsyth could be a reincarnation of Jane Austen. Married to Rodney, a conventional civil servant slipping prematurely into a dull rut of middle age, who feels that it reflects badly on a man if his wife works, Wilmet has no children, plenty of domestic help, and so has too much time on her hands. A situation which was commonplace amongst young middle-class women fifty years ago sounds dated and odd now, indicating how much life has changed.
Wilmet is made to seem more appealing by her humorous self-deprecation: imagining the two local clergymen in need of home help attempting to boil eggs she concludes, “I wondered if they would know what to do if they cracked. I never did myself”. Wilmet is a mass of contradictions. Her religious piety seems like a social habit acquired alongside her elegant dress-sense, her liking for good food and wine, and her disapproval of men in duffel coats and women wearing nail varnish. She seems untroubled over having a husband and mother-in-law who are “non-believers”, and shows a broad-minded tolerance to acquaintances who turn out to be kleptomaniac, or living in a gay relationship at a time when this was still illegal. Her religion does not prevent her from basking in the admiration of her best friend Rowena’s husband, and playing potentially dangerous games with the intriguing Piers Longridge, Rowena’s possibly disreputable brother with a hint of the ne’er-do-well.
On the surface, this is an entertaining read if one can avoid feeling irritated or in the case of younger readers even offended by the total lack of political correctness: the snobbish class-consciousness with its sense of entitlement and privilege; the stereotyping of working class characters; sexism and intimations of racism- although no one belongs to an ethnic minority to put this to the test. I am fascinated by this type of novel which recreates the sense of a past way of life, to some extent parodying it, but with the writer herself a product of the period, unconsciously voicing accepted prejudices of her society.
Barbara Pym was an Oxford graduate, who never married, despite many close relationships with men, and who earned her own living apart from writing novels. Although she is too subtle to make it explicit, she portrays Wilmet as an intelligent woman who does not fulfil her potential because of the attitudes of the society in which she has been raised. Publishers were apparently reluctant to print Pym’s novels which even at the time were considered old-fashioned. Yet in her lifetime, she was considered underestimated as an author, who remains worth reading not merely for her clear, pithy style and wit, but also for the poignancy and depth of observation of human nature which lie beneath the surface.