Thursday, 17 December 2015

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym (1958)


This is that rare thing; the Anglo-Catholic novel. A central focus or field in which the characters are brought together is the church of St. Lukes whose parish priest is Father Thames. I feel that this is Pym’s sly echo of Father Tiber as in Macauley’s Lay:
O Tiber! Father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray
Father Thames doesn’t need to have swum it as the true ancient and catholic tradition is upheld by him even unto celibacy and not just incense, processions and auricular confession. Very High, High Church and several times the Low is mentioned with a shudder.

The time of the novel is about 1955 and the narrator and protagonist is Wilmet Forsyth who is married to Rodney. She is 33 and her husband is older, a higher civil servant, department unspecified though we learn down the novel that he was involved in the production of report on the linoleum industry. They live in the residence of his mother Sybil, a widow with an interest in archaeology, quite happily. No area specified but the leafy square that is their view indicates a good one. Rhoda the maid of all work lives in the basement. Sybil takes charge of the cooking. Wilmet arranges the flowers and is free to do much as she likes. From the observations of others as reported by her we learn that she speaks with a cultured accent is regarded as beautiful and dresses very well. She is also witty and good company, and a little innocent which is part of her charm for the reader. A knowing scryer of character falls dead on the page.

Having no children leaves her with time on her hands. Piers Longridge the brother of her best friend Rowena Talbot teaches evening classes in Portugese and French and as they have planned to go on holidays to Portugal it might be useful to take lessons in the language:

'That hardly seems likely,* said Sybil with a laugh, 'but it would be nice for you to have some intellectual occupation, if it would be that.
'You mean that I should have some work to do?* I asked, rather on the defensive, for I sometimes felt guilty about my long idle days. I did not really regret not having any children, but I sometimes envied the comfortable busyness of my friends who had. Nobody expected them to have any other kind of occupation.
'Not at all, dear, said Sybil calmly. 'Everybody should do as they like. You seem to fill your days quite happily.*
It was true that I had tried one or two part time jobs since my marriage, but Rodney had the old-fashioned idea that wives should not work unless it was financially necessary. Moreover, I was not trained for any career and hated to be tied down to a routine. My autumn plans to take more part in the life of St Luke’s, to try to befriend Piers Longridge and perhaps even go to his classes, ought to keep me fully occupied, I thought.

The unromantic Rodney deposits a substantial sum of money in her account on her birthday quite enough for her to keep herself beautifully dressed. She describes her outfits regularly. However there’s a feeling of a lack, an ‘is that all there is’.
’Yes, I’m very lucky((to have 3 children)). It's a pity you haven't any, Wilmet,' she ((Rowena)) added tentatively. ‘Do you mind?’
‘A little, I suppose. It makes one feel rather useless. Still, there's plenty to occupy my time.’

Very English of that pre-sharing era. Later they watch a television programme. In the upper middle class way everything is given its full style and title. Telly would come in quotes and said in a common accent.
After dinner we had coffee in the drawing-room and watched a television programme. There was a film about the habits of badgers, which showed the creatures rootling about in a kind of twilight in what seemed to be rhododendron bushes. But in reality, as we were told by the commentator, there were lights suspended from the trees because badgers only come out at night and so couldn't be filmed naturally. There was something melancholy about the creatures in the half darkness, with their long sad faces.
Wilmet’s secret project is the raising of Piers Longridge from the slough in which he is perceived to be wallowing. He seems to her to be a handsome, dissolute, romantic figure. That doesn’t work out as she planned. She has a friend Mary Beamish:

Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless —she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendidly everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. She lived with her selfish old mother in a block of flats near our house and was on several committees as well as being a member of St Luke's parochial church council. This particular morning, which seemed to me in my nastiness the last straw, she had just been to a blood donor session and had apparently come away sooner than she ought to have done; for when Sybil and I arrived at the Settlement she was sitting on a chair surrounded by anxious fussing women, one of whom held a cup of tea seeming uncertain what to do with it. 'You should have rested for at least twenty minutes,’ said Miss Holmes, the warden of the Settlement, a tall worried looking woman. ‘It was most unwise of you to come away so soon.’
'And not to wait for your cup of tea either,’ said Lady Nollard in her fruity tones which always made me think of some great actress playing an Oscar Wilde dowager. 'That was very naughty, you know.’

Mary Beamish of course escapes the fate that Wilmet presumes for her and by the end her quiet certainties are exploded. Is she an Emma of our day? Yes in a way and also just as charming. This novel abounds in wit and observation and moves along effortlessly without a single slack passage. She retails the adventures in the clergy house and the sticky fingers of their new housekeeper Mr. Bason who follows that career with horse brasses and high teas in an antique shop in the West Country. Handsome Fr. Ransome, dull and dumpy Father Bode and Trollopean Father Thames get the due notice of the wit of Barbara Pym. On that I’ll end my song.

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