So we reach May – well, actually, nearly the end of May – and book five in the LibraryThing centenary read of Barbara Pym’s novels. This month’s book is “A Glass of Blessings” and I feel it’s fair to say it’s one I’ve had to struggle with a little.

Our narrator/heroine is Wilmet Forsyth. Wilmet is 30, married comfortably to Rodney and lives with him and his mother Sybil. Wilmet is unemployed, childless and mostly bored, and so occupies herself with church, shopping and seeing old friends, while Rodney works for the civil service. A chance reacquaintance with Piers, brother of her best friend Rowena, leads to flirtations and daydreams, all the while spiced up by the goings on of the various priests and parishioners around them. But disillusionment and some surprises lurk round the corner.


In many ways we are in familiar Pym territory – a parish plus its priests and excellent women; a middle class setting; several misfits and Pym’s trademark acid wit. However, I found one big obstacle at the start of this book and that was Wilmet herself. Self-centred, self-interested and complacent, she really is a very unpleasant character. Although she mellows, and recognises some of her faults by the end of the book, I almost stopped reading after the first chapter because of her appalling smugness, and the bland, ready acceptance of the fact that it was ok for her to have no children, no job, and nothing to do but swan around all day shopping and thinking how nicely turned out she was!

“I amused myself by observing these students, who seemed to be of all ages, until I came to the conclusion that people who went to evening classes were all more or less odd. It was unnatural to want to acquire knowledge after working hours. A tall bearded young man, whose string bag revealed a loaf of bread (the wrapped sliced kind), a tin of Nescafe and two books from a public library, filled me with a kind of sadness, as if his whole life had been revealed to me by these telling details.”

Patronising or what!

Her light-hearted flirting with Rowena’s husband Harry seemed actually heartless and hollow, especially when it turned out that Rowena knew about it – and although Wilmet blithely thought how wonderful it was that they were good friends and that this was all ok, I’m not sure it really was. Likewise, the passion she develops for Piers turns out to be groundless as he is quite happily settled in his flat with his friend Keith, and they presumably simply admire her as a poised, elegant woman and nothing else!

If the novel had only consisted of these characters I would have been bored very quickly, but fortunately it is saved by the excellent array of supporting characters. The various priests (Father Thames, Father Bode and Father Ransome) are funny, individual and all likeable in their own ways. Mr. Bason, who leaves the civil service to cook for the priests and somehow ends up in Cornwall running some kind of an antique shop, is a hoot. And Sybil, Wilmet’s mother-in-law, is a joy – she provides a counter voice all the way through, and is a strong, sensible woman who ends up pulling off one of the biggest surprises of the book. Then there is Mary Beamish, a classic “excellent woman”, looking after an ageing invalid mother and unsure of whether to pursue becoming a nun or marrying a priest! I liked Mary immensely, in a way that I couldn’t like Wilmet – in fact, Wilmet’s treatment of her at the beginning of the book is really unpleasant – and I was glad to see Mary in the end find her place in life. There were several appearances of characters from previous books: Archdeacon Hoccleve; Catherine Oliphant; Prudence Bates; and even Rocky from “Excellent Women”, who it transpires that Rowena and Wilmet had both been in love with when they were in the Wrens in Italy, and then went on to meet their husbands. And there is a devastating depiction of the horrors of suburban married life in the form of the cocktail party thrown by Rowena and Harry when Wilmet is visiting for the weekend, which had me wincing and laughing at the same time.


I finished the book perhaps a little unsure of the point Pym was trying to make; and also wondering if she had deliberately made Wilmet so unlikeable for a purpose? It may be that she was trying to show Wilmet’s transformation from a self-centred woman into a slightly more rounded person, with more understanding and genuine feeling for the people around her. However, I’m not sure that that really came across strongly enough. As Piers points out to her:

“… there are others in the world – in fact quite a few million people outside the narrow select little circle that makes up Wilmet’s world.”

though he does go on to try to soften the blow a little:

“… I didn’t really mean to imply that you’re to blame for what you are .Some people are less capable of loving their fellow human beings than others… it isn’t necessarily their own fault.”

By the end of the book, Rowena and Harry seem to just slip out of the story, presumably Harry’s flirtation with Wilmet having come to an end; Piers and Keith, Sybil and Arnold, plus Mary and Marius have settled down; and Wilmet and Rodney, having confessed their silly flirtations, buy a flat and are brought closer together. Are we to think, then, that finding a mate and making a go of it are the only options? Piers and Keith certainly seem to form a normal sort of domestic couple, although the glimpse the pampered Wilmet gets of the modern world of coffee bars is very far from her normal surroundings. Unlike her other books, Pym appears to be lauding the married state, albeit with a cynical enough eye to see that the handsome Marius Ransome is marrying the mousey Mary Beamish from any number of motives, including the fact that she has plenty of money and will be the perfect vicar’s wife!

“…I found myself wondering whether Marius would not find it all rather too exhausting. But perhaps with a good wife and a comfortable home, not forgetting the embarrassment of old Mrs. Beamish’s money, he would struggle through somehow.”

This wasn’t a bad book – I doubt Pym could write such a thing as her prose and wit are excellent – but I found it difficult to get past Wilmet’s character and it was an interest in the subsidiary characters that kept me going until the end, and not in the main protagonist. Enjoyable but flawed would probably be my summing up!



(As a postscript, I should say that I’ve continued thinking about this book since finishing it and writing my review, and I found myself recognising several other themes hidden in there: the glamour that must have attached to Rodney and Harry when the two Wrens met them during the war, and the inevitable change in their relationships when returning to peacetime and ordinary life; the pointless state of middle class women with literally nothing to do but fritter away their lives in a little gilded cage, remote from reality; the capacity in human beings for self delusion. Pym always has plenty to say about life and living, but I’m now even more frustrated about the fact that the unloveable character of Wilmet gets so much in the way!!)