8 June 2022

The plangent wistfulness of faded dreams: Clare Chambers on Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings

Posted by Clare Chambers

Our Author of the Month for June is Barbara Pym. Taken from the newly reissued Virago edition of A Glass of Blessings, Clare Chambers, author of the Women’s Prize nominated Small Pleasures, introduces the novel – Pym’s ‘most impressive and perfectly polished’ – and explores why Pym’s world of ‘disappointed spinsters, parish jumble sales and earnest curates’ continues to charm.

It is almost impossible to read Barbara Pym today without being influenced by the mythology of her extraordinary career trajectory. Between 1950 and 1961 she had published six novels, which were well-received by critics and loved by her loyal readers, and she’d been compared to Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Mrs Gaskell. But in 1963 – a year in which the cultural icons were Christine Keeler, the Beatles, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – her next offering, An Unsuitable Attachment, was turned down summarily by Jonathan Cape. Times were a-changing and Pym’s world of disappointed spinsters, parish jumble sales and earnest curates suddenly seemed out of tune.

This rejection dealt a heavy blow to Pym’s confidence and sense of identity, and though she continued to write, she remained unpublished for sixteen long years. Then in 1977 her long-time supporters, Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, named her in a Times Literary Supplement article as the most underrated author of the past seventy-five years. Almost overnight her reputation was remade; her backlist was swiftly republished by the repentant (some might say shameless) Cape, and she found a new publisher for the book she had been working on during those wilderness years. Quartet in Autumn (1977) was published to critical acclaim and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This fairy tale of rediscovery gives hope to many writers whose works have fallen out of favour and who dream of attracting the notice of such influential champions – and serves as a warning to the capricious gatekeepers of what is In and Out of literary fashion.

When reading A Glass of Blessings (1958) it should be remembered, however, that this was published towards the end of what might be called phase one of Pym’s career, before she had any inkling of the devastating rejection to come, and it shows a writer in confident command of her material. Although contemporary reviews in the press were not especially warm, Oxford dons John Bayley and David Cecil rated the novel her finest, and it is easy to see why. If Pym is often compared to Jane Austen for her wit, social comedy, miniature canvas and delight in human absurdity, then perhaps A Glass of Blessings may be compared to Emma – not the novelists’ best-loved books, (those honours surely go to Excellent Women and Pride and Prejudice) but their most impressive and perfectly polished.

The heroine, Wilmet Forsyth, like Emma, is attractive, intelligent, comfortably off, complacent, under-employed and prone to interference in the affairs of others. She is also sharply observant of other people’s foibles and weaknesses, while being short-sighted about her own. A brief period of enjoyable usefulness in the Wrens (based on Pym’s own experiences in Naples and Capri) has been followed by the stagnation and idleness of marriage to a man who disapproves of working wives. Wilmet’s misguided attempts to fill her empty days with good works and self-improvement – attending committee meetings, giving blood, learning Portuguese – stem from a sense of moral inferiority to the dowdy do-gooder Mary Beamish, one of the ‘excellent women’ of the parish, to whom she attempts to play Pygmalion. These projects founder almost immediately on her dilettantism and lack of genuine application. She is far more interested in observing and confecting intrigues and flirtations, and conducting parallel dalliances with her best friend Rowena’s husband Harry and brother Piers – with mortifying consequences.

Her misreading of the motives and intentions of others forms the heart of the comedy; the reader can see, long before Wilmet does, the nature of Piers’ ‘secret’, and that her unexciting husband Rodney is not to be underestimated. Wilmet’s ultimate mortification – in the manner of Emma Woodhouse she is taken to task and forced to see herself in an unflattering light – is salutary but short-lived. Her essential optimism, good humour and resilience will not let her be crushed for long. Fortunately, she is just as forgiving of others as she is of herself. A saving virtue – apart from her wit – is her warm relationship with her splendid mother-in-law, Sybil. A woman of independent spirit and varied interests, broad-minded and intellectually curious, Sybil provides the moral backbone of the novel, and the sympathetic depiction of the friendship between daughter-in-law
and mother-in-law overturns all the usual stereotypes.

Barbara Pym herself had a far more interesting and complicated romantic life than might be imagined by readers who may overidentify her with the virginal, put-upon spinsters and earnest blue-stockings she depicts in her fiction. As Paula Byrne describes in her fascinating biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, at Oxford in the early 1930s – a time when pre-marital sex was frowned upon and risky – Pym had several crushes, flirtations and love affairs with fellow students, in which she usually came off worse. Throughout her life she repeatedly fell for men who never reciprocated her passion in full measure because they were emotionally unavailable, married or gay, which led to inevitable heartbreak. Nowadays some of these relationships would certainly be considered emotionally abusive, but Pym had the capacity to remain friends even with those who had treated her cruelly. (There was, perhaps surprisingly, a rapprochement with Tom Maschler, the publisher at Cape who had rejected her novel.) She mined these experiences repeatedly for her fiction, and many of her male characters were drawn from her acquaintances, their absurd male vanity and pomposity artfully punctured with the sharp end of her pen. Though unmarried, she was much more a Wilmet Forsyth than a Mary Beamish, and claimed that Wilmet was her favourite heroine – along with the glamorous and sexually liberated Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence.

In 1946 Pym began working at the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, and her interest in anthropology is evident in her novels, even those not specifically set in that arena. Her study of human nature is essentially that of an anthropologist. The things that fascinate her are society’s curious rites and customs (the reception to welcome Father Ransome, the new priest), the fetishizing of certain objects (the Fabergé egg) and the mating rituals (the anonymous gift of the inscribed trinket box). The respectable middle-class inhabitants of a London suburb are just as rich a subject for scrutiny as any other tribe.

Similarly, her depiction of religion tends to focus much more on its practice than its spirit, the discrepancy between the two being a source of much irony. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the attitude of the chief server Mr Coleman towards his bespoke cassock, which he brings to church in a suitcase to make sure no-one else wears it. The high Anglicans of Pym’s world are no less inclined to avarice and petty rivalry than the population at large. ‘It’s the trivial things that matter, isn’t it?’ as Father Ransome points out.

Another notable aspect of Pym’s fiction is the walk-on parts for characters from previous novels, giving a sense that they all take place in the same solidly realised universe, consistent in both era and geography. The philandering Rocky Napier and Julian Mallory from Excellent Women get a name check in A Glass of Blessings, and Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence gets rather more as a new and potentially distracting colleague of Rodney’s at the Ministry.

A Glass of Blessings is one of Pym’s most sparkling comedies, but life’s micro-humiliations and disappointments are never far from the surface. There is an air of wasted female potential in the untapped abilities of Wilmet, and a plangent wistfulness about faded dreams that is perfectly caught in her recollection of past glories in the Wrens with Rowena: ‘The days when we had confided our emotional secrets to each other were gone now, or perhaps it was the secrets themselves rather than the days which were gone, I thought rather sadly.’

Copyright © 2022 Clare Chambers, extracted from A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym published by Virago, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.  

Books mentioned in this blog post