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A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Pym A Glass of Blessings.jpgBack in March I read Pym's Excellent Women -- an excellent novel -- and when I enthused about it on Facebook the Australian writer Lucy Sussex recommended A Glass of Blessings as another good one by Pym. The two books could be read as a dialogue of a kind, and they even share a character: Rocky Napier, who shows up in Excellent Women as a possible object of romantic interest who was known to have been a ladies man among the WRENs (military nurses) while serving in Italy during WWII. Here the protagonist, Wilmet, and her friend Rowena, were WRENs in Italy during the war and knew Rocky and perhaps even dated him.

Excellent Women takes place pretty shortly after the war and is very much about the reduced circumstances of Britain in that era, before the economy had recovered from the devastation. A Glass of Blessings, which was published in 1958, seems to be set a few years later, when the economy has recovered somewhat. Certainly Wilmet is in a more comfortable situation than Mildred is in Excellent Women. In fact, Wilmet seems to be too comfortable. She's pretty, fashionable, married to a successful member of a Ministry. She doesn't work and has no children, the domestic chores are handled by servants, so she is a little bored with her aimless life.

Both novels are centered on Anglican parishes, but I find it hard to parse Pym's attitude toward religion. She has a satirical eye toward everything, including the Church, but at the same time she is not unsympathetic to the Good Samaritan qualities of the religious people in her novels. The excellent women in the novel of that name are indisposable in the functioning of society through their volunteer and charitable work, mostly under the auspices of the Church. Wilmet, however, unlike Mildred, comes across as more of a parasite than a Good Samaritan, and therefore initially she is quite a bit less sympathetic. However, I identified with her inadequate helpfulness to others and her self-deprecating self-awareness of her inadequacy.

Wilmet is a passive dreamer who wishes she were a better, more giving human being. A lot of the satire in the novel is a satire of her muddled lack of motivation to do anything with herself, her vanity about her looks and fashion sense, and the tawdriness of her romantic dreams. Wilmet is bored with her husband, Rodney, and she's looking for an admirer to help her feel that she's still attractive and wanted. She finds a potential admirer in Piers, the brother of her friend Rowena. '[Rowena] usually spoke of him as "Poor Piers", for there was something vaguely unsatisfactory about him. At thirty-five he had had too many jobs and his early brilliance seemed to have come to nothing. It was also held against him that he had not yet married.'

A Glass of Blessings is in some ways a romance novel about Wilmet's futile daydreams about Piers, which are flailing, tentative, and unexpressed for almost the whole novel. Like Mildred, Wilmet dreams of some kind of romantic passion worthy of the trashy novels she reads, but she is helpless to actuate such a thing. In the wry perspective of the novel, this is probably just as well, because such dreams are completely detached from the reality that we all have to settle for less than our ideal.

I'm going to commit a SPOILER here, because what is in many ways the most interesting thing about this novel is a major spoiler. After a whole book of dithering and waiting and misapprehending the signals various characters are trying to send her, Wilmet eventually does make a move on Piers to the extent of actually bulling her way into his household. There she finds that his roommate is a beautiful young man who dotes on Piers, does all the cooking, and cleans the house. Pym never comes right out and says it, but it becomes clear over the final couple of chapters that Piers and his housemate are in fact a gay couple, and the novel gives us an interesting, if oblique, glimpse of gay life in the suburbs of London of that era. One question I have coming away from the novel is, if Wilmet is looking for (and finding) an admirer in Piers, what is Piers looking for in her? Acceptance of his sexuality? If you go back to his sister's characterization of him, does "he had had too many jobs" indicate that he'd been fired for being a homosexual? Does the "early brilliance come to nothing" mean he has been ostracized? In any event, Pym's attitude toward Wilmet's romantic dreams is captured in the fact that the two admirers she attracts over the course of the novel are the husband of her best friend who half-heartedly wants to commit adultery and a gay man who seems happily coupled with a young beauty of a boy.

If Wilmet becomes a more appealing as the book goes on, it's because her self-awareness, while it may not motivate her to good works. allows hers to accept the fundamental absurdity of her situation and her dreams. She *does* accept Piers and the beautiful young man he lives with, and her eccentric, acidic, atheist mother-in-law (a wonderful character), her stodgy husband, the strange trio of parsons in the local parish, and her doormat of a friend, Mary Beamish, and Mary's selfish, domineering mother. This is a novel of colorful characters, even if some of the colors are drab and faded. Pym doesn't overplay the romanticism of her protagonists, which is I think a common problem with satires of romanticism, but she keeps it in scale with the limited choices and constrained circumstances and day-to-day humiliations her characters have to deal with.

One final note: the title comes from a poem by the metaphysical poet George Herbert called "The Pulley" that supplies the epigraph of the book:

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

I admit that I couldn't make heads or tails of this epigraph, especially the last line, but having read some commentary about the poem, it appears to portray God as raining blessings on humans, but not unlimited blessing. Always a little is withheld, to make sure humans are aware where the blessings are coming from. The unlimited blessings will be awarded in heaven, so "the span" in the final line might be "the mortal span of life." God withholds blessings during life to keep humans yearning for more:

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

"Repining restlessness" seems a good metaphor for what the characters feel in A Glass of Blessings, and "rich and weary" might characterize Wilmet. Yet is it an irony that the characters in the book seem largely unaware of God or His blessings?

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