A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I always enjoy returning to the comforting world of Barbara Pym, populated as it is by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, idiosyncratic Anglican clergymen and somewhat fusty academics. It’s a place that seems both mildly absurd and oddly believable, full of the sharply-observed details that Pym captures so well. First published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is another lovely addition to this author’s body of work, a charming novel of mild flirtations and misunderstandings.

Blessings is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth, a well-dressed, attractive woman in her early thirties, comfortably married to the dependable but rather dull Rodney, a civil servant at the Ministry. Having met in Italy during the war when Wilmet was in the Wrens and Rodney in the Army, the couple now live quite amiably with Sybil, Rodney’s amiable mother, in a well-heeled London suburb.

With Rodney out at work all day and Sybil busy with her charitable work, Wilmet is rather at a loss for something to do. Rodney doesn’t want his wife to work as his salary provides more than enough for them to live comfortably at the family home. And in any case, Wilmet doesn’t appear to have trained for any roles – why should she with a solid husband to take care of her? So, instead, Wilmet spins out her days on a combination of bits and pieces, attending evening classes in Portuguese with Sybil, lunching with various friends and spending time with the priests at her local parish.

As is often the case with Pym, there are few, if any, dramatic plot developments here. Instead, Pym focuses on the characters and the interactions they have with one another over the course of the story. For a woman in her early thirties, Wilmet has led a somewhat sheltered existence – there were no lovers before Rodney, she has no children and few close friends to speak of, and her social circle is relatively narrow. So when Piers Longridge – the brother of her closest friend, Rowena – starts paying Wilmet some attention, she looks forward to a little mild flirtation…

I got into the train in a kind of daze. As it lurched on from station to station I gave myself up to a happy dream in which I went to look after Piers when he was ill or depressed or just had a hangover. And yet, had that been what I meant when I had made my offer to him? Not an offer, exactly. But if not an offer, then what? I felt that Piers really needed me as few people did. Certainly not Rodney, I told myself, justifying my foolish indulgence. Piers needed love and understanding, perhaps already he was happier because of knowing me. When I had reached this conclusion I felt contented and peaceful, and leaned back in my seat, smiling to myself. (pp. 174–175)

Wilmet, it seems, is not terribly good at reading other people and picking up on their signals – a failing that leads to disappointment when she finally meets Piers’ flatmate. (I’ll leave you to discover the wonderful irony of that moment for yourself, should you decide to read the book!)

It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. (p. 248)

Pym is a keen observer of human nature, and the novel is full of the gentle humour that Pym excels in. Mr Bason, the new housekeeper at the local parish, is a great source of amusement, passing judgement on his employers and their tastes in food and furnishings at every given opportunity. Bason is one of those wonderful Pym creations – a slightly camp, gossipy man with a penchant for objects of beauty but little time for those who fail to appreciate either his interests or his culinary talents. In particular, he takes pleasure in ‘borrowing’ Father Thames’ treasured Fabergé egg, much to Wilmet’s horror during a chance encounter at the grocer’s…

Would Mr Bason go on talking about the Fabergé egg? I wondered. And was it my duty to say something to him? Surely not here, among the All-Bran, the Grapenuts, the Puffed Wheat, the Rice Krispies and the Frosted Flakes?

‘Father Bode will have his cornflakes,’ said Mr Bason, seizing a giant packet of Kellogg’s. ‘Of course Father Thames has a continental breakfast, coffee and croissants.’

‘My husband likes Grapenuts,’ I found myself saying feebly. Then, gathering strength, I asked, ‘And what do you have? An egg?’ (p. 193)

There’s also an interesting subplot involving Mary Beamish, a steady young woman who Wilmet initially dismisses as rather dull.

Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless – she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but smaller and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. (p. 17)

Nevertheless, as Wilmet learns more about the needs and lives of those around her, she becomes more sympathetic to Mary’s situation, showing a different side to her character than we see at first. Moreover, there’s a lovely hint of irony to their friendship, so while Wilmer is busy dreaming of a flirtation with Piers (and possibly the attractive Assistant Priest, Father Ransome, too), Mary is quietly getting on with a little romance of her own!

As ever with Pym, the dialogue is witty and charming, highlighting each character’s foibles and quirks – her talent for gentle social comedy is second to none. Interestingly, there are hints of a more bohemian world opening up than in earlier Pym novels as we begin to see the transition from a traditional, conservative world to a more liberal society. Piers and his circle of friends are the main embodiment of modernity here, but there are other little touches too, especially in Sybil’s relationship with Professor Root, a frequent caller at the Forsyth house.

Finally, for fans of Pym’s earlier novels, there are various cameo appearances and mentions of characters from these books, including Prudence Bates (from Jane and Prudence), Archdeacon Hoccleve (from Some Tame Gazelle) and the dashing Rocky Napier from Excellent Women). I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that both Wilmet and Rowena had crushes on Rocky Napier – presumably from their days as Wrens when they encountered Rocky in Italy. 

‘Oh this weather,’ Rowena sighed, pulling off her pale yellow gloves. ‘It makes one so unsettled. One ought to be in Venice with a lover!’

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘Whom would you choose?’

There was a pause, then we both burst out simultaneously, ‘Rocky Napier!’ and dissolved into helpless giggles. (p. 159)

In summary, then, A Glass of Blessings is another delightful novel by the inimitable Barbara Pym. As the story draws to a close, Wilmet’s husband, Rodney, also confesses to a harmless flirtation of his own. Nevertheless, the book ends on a contented note with few worries about the couple’s future together. Wilmet, in particular, has a better understanding of those around her, enriching the various relationships she has formed in her affable social circle.     

A Glass of Blessings is published by Virago Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Max has also written about this one, and you can read his thoughtful review here.

40 thoughts on “A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s a real delight. Even when very little happens in terms of plot, Pym has a knack of keeping the reader engaged through her insights into human nature. I’d definitely recommended it if you loved Excellent Women.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mallika. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. Wilmet isn’t terribly good at reading people, is she? Then again, her wartime experiences aside, she seems to have lived a fairly sheltered life. I couldn’t help but laugh at all the non-existent liaisons she kept fantasising about!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s always a joy to have a Pym or two to look forward to, and Blessings is definitely a delight. I’m a little worried that I don’t have many of her novels left to read – just The Sweet Dove Died and a couple of posthumous ones, I think, so the best are probably behind me now!

      Reply
  1. Christine

    I’ve been parsing my Pyms out quite carefully because there is such a limited number, but I’ve loved the four that I’ve read: Excellent Women, Quartet in Autumn, Less Than Angels and Some Tame Gazelle. I have been collecting the Virago editions for my bookshelf. This one looks quite lovely.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know the feeling! I’ve been rationing her novels too, and it really helps to space them out. Hopefully you’ll enjoy this one just as much as the others you’ve read. Quartet in Autumn is probably my favourite as it’s a little different from her earlier novels – more melancholy, I think.

      Reply
  2. Liz Dexter

    I love Mr Bason and all the cameos – and I don’t mind this cover, some reprints are so dreadful. I think I need to do a Pym re-read soon, spurred on by the biography I read recently.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t Bason the most wonderful creation? He lights up the page whenever he appears. And he’s very easy to visualise in the mind, too – ideal sitcom material, I think!

      The new covers do seem to have divided opinion, but I have to admit to being quite a fan of the designs. They seem to strike a good balance between the retro / vintage elements of Pym’s world and a fresh new look to appeal to a new generation of readers – that’s quite a tricky thing to pull off successfully, but I suspect that’s what Virago were aiming for with the designs. Plus, they’re very eye-catching, which helps them stand out in a display!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui, and I think you loved this one a bit more than I did! I struggled with the character of Wilmet, to be honest, though I actually loved all the supporting characters and subplots that Pym had going on. And I’m not sure I really got what she was trying to do, although the book did keep me thinking about it for quite a while after I’d finished it, so it may just be a case of me reading it at the wrong time!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can see how you might have found her somewhat frustrating, especially with all those fantasies about Piers! Nevertheless, I can see how the mind would wander in a situation like this, especially as Wilmet has so much spare time on her hands.

      I’m not sure there’s any great moral lesson to be found in the novel, and it’s quite a difficult one to write about from that perspective as very little actually happens in terms of plot. Maybe Pym is trying to say something about the value of appreciating the relationships we have (e.g. Wilmet’s friendship with Mary) rather than looking for or fantasising about the possibilities of new ones? There’s also something about naiveté and the importance of picking up on signals. I suspect Wilmet will be much better at reading other people in the future!

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    This is a Barbara Pym I get to look forward to reading, a pleasure for the future. She does create a very specific world that is always recognizably hers and I love how you show that. Good grief, another addition to the TBR wishlist. And I’m enjoying an image of a priceless Fabergé egg in among the corn flakes and grapenuts!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule! I loved all the little connections with Pym’s other novels as familiar characters seem to pop up in conversation or make little cameo appearances in the flesh. (Julian Malory from Excellent Women also gets a mention at one point!) It definitely gives a sense of a broad, interconnected world – maybe a little like Trollope’s Barsetshire, but on a somewhat looser basis? As for Bason and the Fabergé egg, that whole anecdote is a hoot – again, it’s sounds mildly absurd as I try to describe it here, but somehow Pym makes it feel utterly believable in the context of her world!

      Reply
  5. tracybham

    How serendipitous! I was trying to decide whether to buy a book by Pym, as I had not read anything by her. And which one. And there was this review, and it decided me in favor of reading something by her. I have decided to go with Some Tame Gazelle based on your review of it and that is was the first published.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A fabulous choice! Some Tame Gazelle is one of my favourite Pyms, and it’s a wonderful introduction to her world. I really hope you enjoy it, Tracy – fingers crossed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is very good, although it might not be the best place to start with her. I’d recommend either Some Tame Gazelle or Excellent Women as a good entry point. Both are early novels and they give a great feel for her style. Then if you enjoy her, you’ll have many more to look forward to!

      Reply
  6. Jane

    I love Barbara Pym and haven’t read her since I madly read everything she wrote, but I should go back and re read, they’re so uplifting and there should always be room for books that make you feel good no matter how big the TBR!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely! I revisited Excellent Women a year or so ago when the Backlisted team featured it on their podcast and it was a delight to read it again. Even though the overall story felt very familiar, I’d forgotten some of the details and minor characters, so it was lovely to have a reminder!

      Reply
  7. Laurie Graves

    Read the A Glass of Blessings many years ago. Your review reminded me how good the book is, and now I want to reread it. But right now I am on an Elizabeth Jane Howard binge. Afterward!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How lovely! I’ve been getting into Elizabeth Jane Howard myself over the past few years, especially her standalone novels. I read Falling earlier this year and was knocked sideways by it, especially given the inspiration for the book…

      Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Ah, that’s interesting to hear. I do keep wondering if I underestimated that novel as it’s considered by some to be a masterpiece. Maybe I’ll go back to it at some point once I’ve worked my way through her others!

              Reply
  8. 1streading

    You’re enthusiasm for Pym really comes through in your review. I didn’t realise she had reoccurring characters – a Pym universe just like the Marvel universe!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I’m definitely more at home here than in the Marvel universe. Now you’ve got me wondering about these characters’ superpowers…producing 50 cream teas for the village fete, perhaps? Especially from meagre rations…

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    Excellent review. I have read this one twice, and yet I sometimes struggle to remember it, I don’t know why, as I enjoyed it both times. I remember Mr Bason (fabulous character) and the Faberge egg. Very glad to be reminded of this one again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s a hard one to write about (and recall) because there’s not a lot in the way of plot or major life events. That said, I think the ‘feel’ of the world Pym creates here will stay with me. And Mr Bason of course – what a wonderful creation!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #309 – Book Jotter

  11. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I adore Barbara Pym, for all the reasons you discuss in your excellent review. It’s been some time, however, since I’ve read most of her novels & I must confess that my memory has jumbled up the details of several of them. Although Glass isn’t my favorite (that honor goes to Excellent Women), I did like it a great deal despite (like many) finding Wilmet just a little dense.
    I love Pym’s cameos, which really link her novels, draw the reader in and give such a great sense of an organic, connected universe (as I recall, Wilmet herself gets a cameo appearance in another work) I always think that only a writer with a certain skewed view of the universe (we don’t ordinarily think of Pym like this, do we?) could have dreamed up Bason and his obsession with that egg!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Yes, there’s something wonderfully odd about Bason. In any other setting he would seem quite absurd, but somehow, in the Pym universe, he fits right in!

      Like you, I adore these little cameos Pym slips into her novels for exactly the reasons you’ve highlighted in your comments. They seem to give each key character a broader life beyond the realm of a single novel. As you say, it creates the sense of an interconnected world or community where characters slip in and out of each other’s lives, even if they’re just on the periphery. I think Wilmet crops up again in No Fond Return of Love, Pym’s follow-on novel from Blessings. Funnily enough, No Fond… is my least favourite Pym so far. Still very enjoyable, but a bit baggy compared to her others! I should probably revisit it at some point, once I’ve read them all!

      Reply
  12. Grier

    Your excellent review reminded me why this is one of my favorite Pyms and I will plan to re-read it soon. I might be mistaken but I believe this is the only Pym novel that is written in the first person. I love Wilmet and all of Pym’s characters including those that make cameo appearances in later novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how lovely, Grier! I hope you enjoy revisiting this one – fingers crossed it will stand up to a second reading. That’s a good point about Pym’s preference for writing in the third person – I think you’re right to say that this might be the only novel featuring a narrator. Funnily enough, it hadn’t occurred to me before, but now that you’ve said it, I can see how it’s a little different to Pym’s usual approach. Like you, I loved Wilmet and thoroughly enjoyed spending time in her company. Apparently she has a cameo in No Fond Return of Love, which I must re-read at some point. It wasn’t my favourite on a first reading, but maybe I’m better placed to fully appreciate it now!

      Reply

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