Blaise Pascal said the world is divided into two types of people: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous. Clearly into the first group do we designate Wilmet Forsythe, the first-person narrator of Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings. A faithful churchgoer to High Anglican services in London in the 1950s, she constantly hopes she’s doing something of value for other people, and doubts sometimes do creep in.
And here lies the genius of Barbara Pym: she can establish a character and give her a touching innocence but keep her musings so real and so honest, that she always compels our sympathy. Our love, even. She tells her story with a sly and subtle humor with the joke being at the heroine’s expense most of the time. If this reminds you of Jane Austen, you’re on the right track, but in Pym the internal dialog is more constant and vivid. In Blessings, we become captivated by Wilmet, a pretty, fashionable housewife on the verge of turning 30. She brings a certain charisma or vivacity to her friends and acquaintances with the simple act of visiting. Her good will and well wishes are really just a bonus. She acknowledges her vanity – which she can hardly help, really – is in conflict with her charitable impulse, and tries always to favor her virtue. Thus we the glamorized readers are towed along the book’s character-driven plot with its gratifying outcomes. That’s the point with Pym: tag along behind the engine of the main character’s internal dialog and see where it takes us.
Open Road Media are re-releasing Ms. Pym’s oeuvre for e-readers this year, and I hope their effort spreads the word about Barbara Pym to the world again. Ms. Pym definitely deserves her reputation for gentility and wit, as well has her burgeoning standing in the pantheon of 20th Century novelists. This book contains not even a hint of a false note, nor a flagging moment, and even though the plot is straightforward, it does contain surprises.
If you haven’t experienced this artist, pick up (or download) A Glass of Blessings and introduce yourself to the bewitching and delightful company of Barbara Pym. You will be richer for it.