Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Gosh how a month swooshes by when you are in the kid leather soft glove of a book by Barbara Pym! A Glass of Blessings was the first of the twelve books in my Domestic Fiction 2010 Read-Along and just as I expected it got our year of cosy reading got off to an auspicious start with a book so quietly and often hilariously telling it was hard to put down, though I suspect I shall have great trouble reviewing it in a way that really does such well mannered writing justice.
Wilmet Forsyth is "rather bored". She is in fact politely bored of almost everything, from her marriage to the shadowy, almost irrelevent Rodney, to her situation as a well behaved middle class wife with very little to occupy her mind beyond the comings and goings of the local clergy and the mindless gossip doing the rounds of various church functions. Which I think you will agree, really rather spells trouble.
But Darlings this is middle class London in the late 1950's and trouble is hardly the minx she would be today. Trouble in fact for Wilmet comes merely in the form of a swooning crush on the enigmatic Piers Longridge, (though how enigmatic a man who spends many an hour collecting car plate numbers can be is debateable), a man whose charm lie's almost exclusively in his vagueness. But regardless, Wilmet fancies herself in love and so begins a comedy of errors, cringeworthy in both their affront to the polite society Wilmet and Piers reside in, and because in Wilmet herself we find too much of ourselves and our own willingness to cast ourselves in fairytale roles that will never come to pass.
While the supposed love affair is central to the storyline, it is the cast of supporting characters who are the real joy in the book. From Rodney's Mother Sybil who speaks her mind at every turn, to the kleptomaniac Mr Bason, the clergys housekeeper, who cannot help himself but cast aspersions on all those who do not share his love of beautiful things and finally the really rather fabulous knitting pattern model Keith, a man who ultimately, despite the most unexected of odd's, Wilmet cannot help but take to her heart: it is the supporting characters and the hilarity they so very often bring to the story (look out the Faberge Egg kerfuffle!) that are in striking contrast to the innate, perhaps essential blandness of Wilmet and her like, who never quite struck me as fully fleshed out: but then perhaps that is the difference between a well drawn character and a caricature which is what the really quite mad Mr Bason almost certainly is?
Clandestine affairs (even the desperately innocent kind to be found in Barbara Pym's books) are never unexpected in domestic fiction, but what struck me most about A Glass of Blessings was the casual approach the two civilised, well bred couples in the book took to the tiny betrayals intrinsic to many a marriage, flinging about the notion of "taking a lover" with genteel abandon, and tolerating spousal wandering eyes with a lack off the kind of moral outrage that one would have expected from both the time and the class in which the book is set. Wilmet herself is not immune to the overtures of her best friend's husband and she isn't particuarly offended by her husbands parallel overtures, seeming almost to regard these small indiscretions as part and parcel of enduring the well dressed bars of middle class marriage.
Furthermore she does not seem to question the morality of her feelings for Piers in light of her deep rooted attachment to her beloved Anglican Catholic religion, though it has to be said that Wilmets devotion is reserved more for the community of the church itself than it is for any God and it is the rights and wrongs of the clergy, their funny little quirks and traits and the congregation as a source of gossip that most enthralls her and her readers.
"I also noticed two well-dressed middle aged women with a young girl, whom I remembered having seen in church sometimes. All three were chinless, with large aristocratic noses. Near them stood a thin woman with purple hair and a surprised expression, as if she had not expected that it would turn out to be that colour. She wore a good deal of chunky jewellery, and I felt she had gone a little too far in showing churchgoers need not necessarily be dowdy. She was rather surprisingly in conversation with a group of nun's from the convent in the parish. The nuns were of two two kinds, short and motherly looking ot tall and thin with steel-rimmed spectacles, pale, waxy complexions and sweet, remote smiles, that had something a little sinister about them."
That Wilmet imagines herself somehow emotionally superior to the more earnest women of the congregation and often cast's herself as the outsider looking in, is ultimately what she sees as her undoing. She is blind too much that is obvious because she is too busy entertaining notions of romantic grandeur she cannot imagine other, duller women are capable of, and this arrogance finally bites her on the nose until she has no choice but to come down to earth with a soft, mildly embarrassed bump, and accept her life for what it is and what it has the potential to be.
All in all, this is a quiet gem of a book and Barbara Pym the kind of writer capable of conjuring up a world where plot hardly seems to matter when the characters are so beguilling, and the writing pitch perfect. Though at times I wondered out loud what it was that makes Pym's books so enchanting to those interested in mid-century domestic fiction, with their almost obsessional affinity to parish life and hero worship of often the most eccentric of clergy, the fact remains that I am never happier than navigating the social minefield of Pym's imagination, and I thought A Glass of Blessings was a joy, so I would love to hear your opinion...
P.S: In February I will be reading Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather For the Wedding and you are of course invited to read along...