A GLASS OF BLESSINGS is a pleasure to read, every phrase of it. Its excitement revolves around uncertainties such as finding a new housekeeper for the clergy house (C. of E.), and you can't put it down. It takes place in London about 10 years after the last war among people who may no longer exist and for whom the parish church is the social hub. There are tea parties galore. We are asked to believe that old Father Thames, after 40 years cannot drink Indian Tea, and we are incredulous. And yet it is ture that A Glass of Blessings is neither arch, nor really remote from the daily rounds and daily tensions of many ordinary people in this America, to this day. Several of its characters are nonbelievers, several indulge in drink a lot stronger than tea, the patronizing of women is always spotted and is treated with amused irony -- "'Shall we leave the gentlemen to their port and manly conversation. Women are supposed not to like port except in a rather vulgar way,'" -- and as to sexual tensions and preoccupations, they are all there, hetero, homo, licit and illicit, just bobbing at the surface.
Wilmet forsyth, who tells the story, is a woman of 33. She lives in comfortable circumstances with her husband, a high civil servant -- "I had always regarded Rodney as the kind of man who would never look at another woman," -- and her mother-in-law, who is interested in archeolgy. These two are the nonbelievers, good about dropping her off at midnight mass and picking her up again. Wilmet is attractive, has no children (which she doesn't mind), does a lot of shopping, is somewhat self-satisfied -- "I was glad that I had decided to wear black in which I always feel right" -- and would like to do a little good. She is also intrigued by the possibility of a little bad. There are plenty of people in this story with which she could do the one or the other.
As to an example of the good, Wilmet goes dutifully to the tea party of Miss Prideaux, an elderly parishioner who had passed her active days as a governess in foreign royal houses. "Miss Prideaux appeared to remember only the best parts of her life, so that she was sometimes accused of exaggeration or even of downright lying. "Two litres of Chianti from our own vineyards was sent up to the schoolroom every day,' I once heard her say; at other times she would hint at remarkable and esoteric knowledge of some historical event, such as what really happened at the hunting lodge at Mayerling that winter night in 1883."
To the party comes another aged parishioner, Sir Denbigh Grote, a retired diplomat whose position was a little damaged by his having burned all the embassy papers, on the approach of the Germans, instead of bringing home the important ones. The two old people are not of the same social level. "It could only be supposed that retirement, like death, is a kind of leveller; and that social differences had been forgotten in the common pleasure of recalling garden parties at the embassies to celebrate the sovereign's birthday, and other similar functions which few people would have been capable of discussing at all knowledgeably."
As to the bad, Wilmet is rather forthright about her attraction to other men and excited to meet them for a clandestine lunch, and even a walk along the river. Rowena is her best friend. Wilmet is pursued by Rowena's husband, about whom she is a little leery, and she is quite titillated by Rowena's brother, with queer consequences. The two woman talk over their mutual friends, shop together, and another highlight, have their hair done at a fancy place.
"'Jennifer, take the pins out of these madames!' hissed Monsieur Jacques, patting our heads rather too hard."
Clearly there is no skimming this novel for plot. No good buying it in London to read on the flight home. Instead it is the kind of book you dip into in peace and quiet, and proceed with the intention to steep yourself, like good China tea.
As Alice asked what is the use of a book without pictures and conversation, we may ask what is the use of a book without rape, incest, murder, battered wives, child abuse and racial strife. When we are looking for stimulants, do we really want to fuss about Indian tea or China tea when there are whisky and drugs! Barbara Pym's fine writing is characterized by understatement, by an irony that is always gentle, and by care in the choice of every word. She records the interactions of unexceptional people impelled by ordinarily motives, both petty and kind, for whom responsibility, self-discipline and discretion are rules that are still in place.
It might be argued that Wilmet does not lift a teaspoon against social evils of which the English class system is a corrosive example. But one is more than a political self. Fiction's field is the ethical self. In spite of all the good things we've now won -- sexual freedom, divorce, abortion, and Telling Everything -- they are still secondary to, and less interesting than, the old values -- responsibility, self-discipline, discretion. When you finish A Glass of Blessings you may find that your cheek muscles ache from all the grinning and that your better self is a little ratified.