Rest lay at the bottom

Glass of Blessing (NetGalley)
Barbara Pym
release date: January 22, 2013 (ebook)

“Oh Wilmet, life is perfect now! [said Mary Beamish] I’ve got everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it’s like a glass of blessings …”
“That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn’t it? I said. ‘When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by …” 
“But don’t forget that other line … how when all the other blessing had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass. That’s so very appropriate for a harassed suburban …” 

I first read Barbara Pym twenty-some years ago as I worked my way through the fiction stacks at the bookstore where I worked evenings. The novels had everything I loved in a good book: a quaint English village (or post-war London), devout spinsters (or agnostic office workers), toast for tea (or grapenuts and Nescafe at breakfast). Plot was thin and not really the point, after all–Pym’s world was truly a comedy of manners. I started with Jane and Prudence and Excellent Women, moved on to Crampton Hodnet and Quartet in Autumn and life was good. It got even better with the gift of A Very Private Eye, Pym’s life in diaries and letters, with a forward by her sister, Hazel Holt.

Glass of Blessings tells the story of thirty-year-old beautiful Wilmet (“But Wilmet, life is like … your name–so sad, and you so gay and poised.”), wiling her life away by attending daily mass, keeping tabs on the vicar, and longing for … something. Husband Rodney, stolid and dull, is preoccupied with life in the Ministry. The couple lives with his mother Sylvia, a rather eccentric seventy-year-old with an interest in archaeology. Best friend Rowena has three children and a life in the suburbs to hold her in check. But Rowena’s brother Piers, single, handsome and unsettled, holds some allure. An autumn walk along the river, luncheon, afternoon tea–and soon Wilmet allows herself to believe they might have the enigmatic “something more”.

Yet Wilmet, and I would imagine Pym’s readers in 1958 when the book was first published, was in for a shock. For Piers has a flat mate. Keith. A sometimes model who works in a coffee bar. And decorates the flat. Whose friends Tony and Ray are ballet dancers. Oblivious for a time to the obvious, the realization of Piers’s sexual orientation hits Wilmet one night while perusing a magazine for a glimpse of Keith’s work–then she closes the “book and took a sleeping pill.” Dear Wilmet.

As in most Pym novels, the characters end, if not exactly happy, then at least coming to some sort of understanding. Mary and Sylvia both find true love (or at least willing partners). Rodney confesses he had dinner some two or three times with a Miss Bates, but she reminded him of Wilmet. Keith helps Wilmet decorate her new flat (“Wilmet, I like the lime green. It goes will with antique furniture–sets it off …”) A priest retires, a new vicar is installed. And life goes on.

  “… There was no reason why my own life should not be a glass of blessings too. Perhaps it always had been without my realizing it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *