One thing needs to be said before I can even start to review this book; everybody must read Barbara Pym. Named by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the Times Literary Supplement as "the most underrated novelist of the century" back in 1977, her work was unknown to me until I stumbled upon Excellent Women last year. I was stunned that it had taken so long for her books to come to my attention. Something of a Jane Austen of the 1950s, her works are witty social comedies capturing a time sandwiched between the great changes of the Second World War and the Swinging Sixties.
2013 marks the centenary of Pym's birth, so along with many Pym fans I'm marking the occasion by reading my way through one of her works a month. Rather than being logical and going by publication date, I decided to start slightly at random and chose A Glass of Blessings, first published in 1958.
Our heroine is Wilmet Forsythe, who has a comfortable, if dull, life with her civil servant husband Rodney and mother-in-law Sybil. Her world circles around the community in the high Anglican church she attends, where she often finds her thoughts wandering. During one service where Wilmet's mind is typically elsewhere she spies Piers Longridge, the handsome brother of Rowena, her old friend in the suburbs. Wilmet is intrigued by Piers and his mysterious life and soon starts to find him a welcome romantic distraction from her safe existence at home.
Wilmet finds her heart a-flutter as she fantasises about how her influence could change him from his moody, brooding, drinking ways. However, what Wilmet hasn't considered is just why Piers is unmarried, and she soon realises her assumption that he lives with a "colleague" isn't quite on the mark.
This book represents so many of the things I love about Pym's writing. Her stories are complex webs of many well conceived characters who all fit together into a deliciously funny portrait of 1950s London. Every detail of her characters is irresistible. For example, her choice of names add a richness and help to create a clear portrait of how she's imagined them. Wilmet and Marius Ransome are obviously fabulous examples, but Rodney summarises his safe, civil service ways; spinster Mary's name highlights her good, devoted nature and, my favourite of all, Keith.
Piers' lover (as is implied but never explicitly stated) was a great construct. In a world of money and dressing for tea, Keith is from the lower social echelons. He dresses down, works in a coffee shop and models knitwear patterns. This contrast served both as great comic material but also a subtle way to illustrate the changing nature of society at the time. In the periphery there are great little sketches involving the goings on at the clergy house, a kleptomaniac male housekeeper and the students at Piers' Portugese classes.
It would be easy to take a simple view on both this story and Pym in general. Her tales may be a narrow view of a specific time in English history. What I love, however, is that we get sneaking glimpses of a society in flux through Wilmet's inquisitive and innocent eyes. Women can vote and work, but females with a career are a novelty; women clearly have their place. As Wilmet mused about working women, "I suppose some of them try to combine marriage with a career - I mean the ones who carry baskets as well as briefcases and look both formidable and worried, as if they hoped to slip into the butcher's before going to their desks". Father Ransome is from a more impoverished parish Wilmet suspects benefits from "these days of the welfare state". Similarly, we are witness in Wilmet's wanderings to the postwar redevelopment of urban areas; "I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing...their shouts and laughter drowned out by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them". That's before we even touch upon Piers and Keith's relationship in a time when homosexuality was illegal.
A Glass of Blessings is a perfect rush hour read. I chuckled away as Wilmet's focus flitted from important events to the silly, little details our bored minds often occupy themselves with. Every character fitted so well and all rang true. I even found myself feeling somewhat lucky to be on my way to another day in the office as Wilmet longed for excitement and a purpose in an age where being a professional wife was the norm. So, for some escapism with depth, I couldn't recommend this novel more highly.
I'm already looking forward to next month's dose of Barbara Pym!
(Available in paperback or on Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blessings-Virago-Modern-Classics-ebook/dp/B0050C86T0)