London, late 1950s. Wilmet Forsyth (that name!) has just turned 33 years old. She is married to her civil servant husband Rodney. They met in Italy, during WWII, when she served as a Wren (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and he was a soldier. When A Glass of Blessings begins, Wilmet has started going to St. Luke’s church in London because her parish church services have become too Low for her. (Unsure what that meant, I looked it up – it means that the services have a Protestant emphasis rather than a more ritualized Anglo-Catholic emphasis.) Attending a lunch time service, she happens to meet Piers Longridge, the brother of a dear former Wren friend, Rowena. She hasn’t seen him in quite a while, and she speculates that there’s something unsatisfactory about how he’s turned out – at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Is it because he’s unmarried at the age of 35? Is it his underemployment? They speak after the service ends, and Piers pays her a compliment.
“And women are so terrifying these days and seem to expect so much, really far more than one could possibly give. Not that I would include you in my condemnation,” he added quickly. “You look particularly charming today, Wilmet.” He smiled down at me in the provocative way I remembered…Rodney seldom commented on my appearance now and Piers had that engaging air of making me feel that he meant what he said.
Wilmet is bored. She has no children (she doesn’t seem to want any – was this unusual for literature in the 1950s?) and doesn’t work outside the home. She doesn’t seem to do much work inside the home either. She and her mother-in-law, Sydney (who is an avowed agnostic and a hoot) decide to take Portuguese classes from Piers in the evenings. She also decides to become more a part of the goings on at St. Luke’s. Wilmet starts working with the rather dowdy fellow parishioner Mary Beamish, one of those single “excellent women” who devote their time to good works of the church. Just associating with Mary seems to make Wilmet feel better about herself. I found this passage hilarious:
…I remembered my promise to Mary Beamish to join the panel of blood donors. I saw myself lying on a table, blood pouring from a vein in my arm into a bottle which, as soon as it was full, would be snatched away and rished to hospital to save somebody’s life. There seemed at that moment no limit to what I could do.
With Rodney not paying her much attention, she experiences a sort of infatuation with Piers. They have outings once in a while, but he plays hot and cold with Wilmet, which only seems to attract her more. ( There’s an incident with a Christmas gift that has no note – naturally Wilmet thinks it’s from Piers!) Piers is an enigma, but meanwhile, Wilmet has to fend off the unwanted attentions of her friend Rowena’s husband Harry. And then there’s a new youngish, attractive assistant priest joining St. Luke’s.
What follows is a story with a very small footprint, but an emotional impact greater than its size. This is what I love best about Barbara Pym’s novels: they capture the full range of human emotion in seemingly ordinary, everyday small interactions. They’re also terribly funny in that dry British way I love. Where many of her novels feature spinsters, this one is told from the perspective of a married woman, and the novel portrays marriage rather realistically. A Glass of Blessings is written in first person, so we get to know Wilmet well. I find her a likeable character despite her self-centeredness and vanity. She’s somehow endearing, and she becomes more mature and self-aware by the end of the book. ( Is she resigned? Chagrined? Maybe both.) If you’ve never read Barbara Pym before, I’d say start with Excellent Women, and then maybe read this one, or Jane and Prudence. You can’t go wrong! I’ve not yet read all of her novels, but I know I’ll enjoy them!