A Glass of Blessings, Barbara Pym
All the while I was reading this book, I was wishing that I could give the central character, Wilmet Forsyth, a copy of the last book I read, Marjorie Hillis's Live Alone and Like It. Not because Wilmet is single or lives alone, but because she has no plan for living, she just drifts through her days with few interests or responsibilities. She and her husband Rodney have no children, though I couldn't figure out if that was by choice or not. Because she has so much time on her hands, and I think feels the lack of something she can't quite define, she plays around at love, flirting with her best friend's husband and brother in turn. She begins to take one of these relationships more seriously, building it up in her mind to a real love, but it ends badly for her (in a way that surprised me nearly as much as Wilmet**). By the end she seems to have learned something, at least to know herself a little better, and that seems a happy ending. Her story reminded me a little of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, who also makes some big mistakes about love and marriage, and about herself, though she gets a much more obviously happy ending.
I won't say much about the story, because I'm sure many people have already read this one, and those who haven't should have the fun of discovering its twists and turns for themselves. I'll just mention a couple of things that struck me with this book. I wondered from the start about Wilmet's name, which I have never come across before. I was happy to learn that she is named for a character in Charlotte M. Yonge's novels, though she doesn't say which one. A later reference to Barchester Towers reminded me that Barbara Pym was also a fan of Anthony Trollope, who with Yonge is mentioned in others of her books.
Wilmet and Rodney live with his widowed mother Sybil, in her home. We aren't given the backstory, whether it's for economic reasons or family ties (Wilmet apparently has no family). It certainly isn't because Sybil needs care. I think one reason that Wilmet is a bit adrift is that Sybil does so much, apparently handling all of the household tasks. She is also very involved in settlement work, inviting Wilmet along to help. Unlike Wilmet, who is an active member of her parish, she is an agnostic - I think the first I have met in Barbara Pym's books. She is quite open about her beliefs and willing to debate. She seems to have influenced Rodney, who will drive his wife to church but rarely attends services. I really enjoyed Sybil's sometimes sharp comments and observations, as well as the way she makes her own life. I think she sees more than Wilmet realizes but isn't sure how to help her.**
I had actually met Wilmet already, as she makes a cameo appearance in No Fond Return of Love. I have gotten used to Pym's characters crossing from book to book, but I was still surprised to meet so many in this book. Both Wilmet and her friend Rowena were once infatuated with Rocky Napier from Excellent Women, whom they met in Italy during the war. Julian and Winifred Malory from Excellent Women also appear, and one character ends up living with them for a short time. Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence plays an important part in this story, though she herself remains off-stage. And Rodney's colleague James Cash seemed familiar, though I haven't figured out if he and his wife Hilary are in another book.
**The next sections contain some spoilers.
Wilmet builds up in her mind a love affair with Piers Longridge, the brother of her friend Rowena. I figured out there was some kind of mystery about his living situation, but like Wilmet I was surprised to discover that he is gay, living with a partner, Keith (both of whom show up with Wilmet and Rodney in No Fond Return of Love). Not that anyone ever says it out loud - but everyone pretty much accepts it. I didn't expect that in a book published in 1958 - either the characters or the acceptance.
Wilmet and Rodney receive an even greater shock when Sybil announces first that she will marry her old friend, Professor Arnold Root; and second, that she expects them to move out when Arnold moves in. She hardly seems to notice that she is upending their lives. I want to think that she is doing it at least in part for their own good. And I believe it will be good for them, to be on their own, building their own home and a different kind of life together.