Tuesday 6 November 2018

A Glass of Blessings

I've been at the Barbara Pyms again – A Glass of Blessings this time, which I rate about the best of those that I've read. Philip Larkin thought it 'the subtlest of her books', in which 'the sparkle on first acquaintance has been succeeded by the deeper brilliance of established art'.
  Unusually for Pym, it's narrated in the first person, so we see events through the eyes of the gloriously named Wilmet Forsyth (her Christian name comes from a Charlotte M. Yonge novel). Wilmet is comfortably off, married to a slightly stodgy husband, childless and decidedly under-occupied. She observes the world with amused detachment, finding plenty of scope for amusement in the goings-on of her London parish – extremely high and ritualistic, with celibate clergy and a small army of officials and acolytes, assisted by another small army of 'excellent women', on the fringes of which Wilmet, feeling she ought to do something, finds some occupation and much comic material.
  As the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent (though not, of course, to her) that Wilmet has a way of missing the most obvious things – for example, that the object of her romantic crush (a very Pymian thing) is clearly gay. He's not the only gay character either: for an English novel published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is pretty relaxed about such things. Wilmet also fails to spot not one but two impending marriages, and that her husband is up to something. She also makes a wholly wrong assumption about the source of a romantically anonymous Christmas gift.
  Towards the end, the endearing Wilmet realises how much she's missed and got wrong – but with that realisation comes another: that perhaps her life has been, and is, rich in blessings. This sense of being blest is prompted by a friend whose life has taken a wholly unlooked-for turn for the better:
'Oh, Wilmet,' she exclaims, 'life is perfect now! I've everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it's like a glass of blessings. Life, I mean,' she smiled.
  'That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn't it?' I said.
                       'When  God at first made man,
                        Having a glass of blessings standing by...'
Then her friend's vicar husband chips in:
'But don't forget that other line ... how, when all the other blessings had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass. That's so very appropriate for a harassed suburban vicar. What an afternoon! I'm simply exhausted.'
  In Barbara Pym's world, everyone can be expected to have George Herbert at their fingertips. She's a great one for the seventeenth-century poets.
  Here is the poem they are quoting from, The Pulley (with its wonderful last verse)
When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.” 

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