A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

After reading Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, I knew I had to look for more of her work. A Glass of Blessings has as its protagonist Wilmet Forsyth, a lady of leisure in her early 30s married to Rodney, a civil servant. The couple have no children and live in a large London house with Wilmet's pleasingly unconventional mother-in-law Sybil. It's 1958 and Wilmet's days are spent shopping, lunching and going to the local Anglican church, where she seems much more interested in the gossip and internal politics of the congregation and clergy than she does in Christianity itself. Her life and marriage, though comfortable and not unhappy, are beginning to bore her, and when she and her friend Rowena reminisce about their days as young, single Wrens during the war, it's clear that there's a lot that Wilmet misses. When she meets Rowena's mysterious brother Piers one day at church, she immediately starts to wonder about an affair. What ensues is a comedy of errors as much as it is a comedy of manners.

Although A Glass of Blessings is, a thoroughly middle-class tale set in a small, genteel world of relatively trivial concerns - there's a sub-plot about a house full of clergymen and their eccentric male housekeeper, for example - there is a markedly bittersweet edge to it. Its wit is acerbic and there is a genuine undercurrent of sadness to it, as well as a fascinating moral ambiguity. Wilmet herself freely admits that her interests are shallow and her life relatively lacking in meaning, and yet at the same time she has little inclination to change. She's often presumptuous or snobbish, but invariably reprimands herself for it. She's a remarkably honest narrator and I love her for it - and why should she feel guilty about her frivolity, really?

This book is very funny, and yet has moments of real poignancy that I found touching while also pleasingly unsentimental. There's a particular moment between Wilmet and Rowena that reveals the real depth of their friendship, forged long before their husbands were on the scene, despite the lightness of tone throughout the conversation. There's also a revelation towards the end of the book - one I won't describe because it would be quite a spoiler - to which Wilmet reacts with a genuine kindness, and an understanding which is all the more notable for the book's 1950s setting.

 I don't know why it took me until 2019 to start reading Barbara Pym, because I feel I've been missing out all my life. A Glass of Blessings isn't a novel of grand passions or heightened emotion. It's a novel of small disappointments, stiff upper lips, self-deprecation, sharp observations, irrepressible humour, mild eccentricity and gentle tolerance - it might, in fact, be the most quintessentially English thing I've ever read, and I loved it.