‘A little bit of ivory, two inches wide’
Barbara Pym is often compared to a modern day Jane Austen. It is easy to see why, in this beautifully crafted work set in the 1950’s. She has Austen’s light, sure touch for social gradations and the precise delineation of hypocrisy. Like Austen, she is a writer who shows, not tells, what her characters are like.
The central character, Wilmet, is an upper middle class married woman in her 30’s. Her husband, a high ranking civil servant does not want his wife to have a job – so just like the Austen heroine she most reminds me of (Emma) Wilmet is engaged in doing good works.
Rather than her mission being to marry off her acquaintances, it seems to be to find suitable employment and placing for young men, and to nurture romantic fantasies about them. Preferably those of some attractiveness.
Much of the social comedy is set around the Anglican Church, as Wilmet gets involved in churchly good works. It isn’t that she has particularly strong religious leanings, it is just this is the organisation whereby the good works carried out by titled ladies and their slightly less upper-class sisters, happen.
Wilmet is as much in need of somewhere to express her own creativity and intelligence, and as inhibited in finding a powerful place of her own to do this in, by virtue of strictures of class and gender, as the engaging, meddling, Miss Woodhouse!
Pym does not go in for huge blood sweat tears and oil splashed canvases. Like Austen, she works a little bit of ivory, two inches wide, for her canvas. And it is exquisite, sly, mischievous and occasionally, lethally barbed. She is one of those writers who manages their craft so very well, but with apparent effortless ease, that she makes the difficulty of doing that appear ridiculously simple. Which of course, it isn’t.
I found myself constantly chuckling at her fine, understated wit. Ironic amusement pours from her pen, and punchlines are placed beautifully. This is not humour which screams JOKE COMING and tries too hard, this just keeps on delivering unlaboured sharp, warm, understated brilliance.
Again, like Austen,although sex is very much a subtext, in Pym’s book the grand passions are understated and the nitty gritty of any sort of physical contact is not spoken of
Wilmet, like Emma, has a journey whereby, without huge drama, she sees how prone she is to make mistakes, through a nature which is overly self-absorbed, imagining herself at the centre of the universe (surely a failing common, to a greater or lesser degree, to most of us!) She learns, without tragedy, to see where the blessings, undramatic, might lie in her own life, and achieves a kind of reconciliation. Half empty, to half full.
Note: I received this as a free copy, for review, by a digital publisher in the States. My reading was seamless in that I didn’t really notice, at all the format of my reading. Which must mean that digitisation was expertly done, without the annoying format glitches which sometimes occur
Glass Of Blessings. Amazon.com