Sunday 9 March 2014

Class in the Novels of Barbara Pym II

Jacobean chintz

Wilmet Forsyth, the narrator of A Glass of Blessings (1958), is about 35, comfortably off, elegant, pretty, married and a bit aimless. She longs for romance, and though she has a sense of the ridiculous, she fails to notice some quite obvious aspects of her acquaintances. She is also a mild snob in a way typical of her background and times. But then so are most of her friends.

This is a very funny book, and Barbara Pym obviously enjoys wearing Wilmet's expensive clothes, colourful silk scarves and antique jewels by proxy. Like many Pym heroines, Wilmet relies on the local Anglo-Catholic church for a social circle. There is a lot of chat about tea. The parishioners drink strong Indian tea with sugar (tut!). Wilmet and her husband place themselves in the pecking order by preferring Earl Grey (though Lapsang is an option), and drinking it correctly without milk.

Wilmet has lunch out with her mother-in-law, Sybil, who stops at a self-service cafeteria. Wilmet thinks this is really rather downmarket. "We... now stopped outside an extremely unappetizing looking cafeteria, where a small queue had formed near the counter." She chooses "a cheese salad with a roll and butter, some stewed apple, and a cup of black coffee", but worries that the lettuce won't be clean, and is distressed by a scattering of chips on the floor.

Her middle-class friend Rowena collects "Chelsea, Dresden and Meissen" china and has photographs of her friends and family in silver frames on the grand piano. She lives in an "Elizabethan-style" house built in the 30s, with a monkey-puzzle tree on the lawn. All just a tiny bit naff.

They meet in London. "Even this restaurant," says Rowena, "in spite of its gay Italian paintings round the walls, has an air of Eastbourne about it. Look at the curtains - cream net and cretonne with a Jacobean design - that brings one down to earth all right!" (Jacobean crewel embroidery had a strange afterlife as a design on wallpaper, curtains and furnishing fabric.)

Wilmet meets her friend Piers, who sometimes behaves as if he is in love with her, in a city restaurant where "sausage toad" is on the menu. (This is toad-in-the-hole, an almost vanished British dish of sausages baked in batter.) What should they have for pudding? "Do you think you would like to eat Devonshire tart, whatever that may be?" asks Piers. "I'll eat whatever you suggest," she replies, "as long as it isn't pink blancmange." (Pink blancmange has probably disappeared for good - thank heavens. It was a sweetened cornflour "mould" – a distant and debased copy of a grand Victorian original probably made of double cream. Devonshire tart contains cream cheese and strawberries.)

Piers turns out to be living with a boyfriend called Keith, who gives them tea. "There was a check tablecloth on a low table, and plates of sandwiches and biscuits and a pink and white gateau arranged on plastic doilies. Each plate had a paper table napkin laid across it." In Keith's room there are few books, but: "A trailing plant of a kind which had lately become fashionable stood on another table, its pot in a white painted metal cover." Plastic doilies! Poor Keith. He even sometimes works as a knitting pattern model.

Her friend Mary (now engaged) confesses: "You see, I've never had any boyfriends." Thinks Wilmet: "What does one say, what word can one use, to describe what she meant? Lovers, admirers, suitors, followers - none seems to be quite right." Middle-class people still won't say "boyfriend".

She and her husband Rodney daringly visit Keith in the coffee bar where he works. Where's Piers? "He's just come in now," said Keith. "Look - in the doorway by that lady in the lemon jumper." Wilmet would never call a garment "lemon" - she only uses colour names, not the names of coloured things. It would have to be "pale yellow". Also to her, it's a "jersey" not a jumper. Oh, and she would never refer to a woman she didn't know as "a lady".

Though homosexuality was still illegal in the 50s, none of Wilmet's family are shocked when they find out about Piers and Keith, and after the initial surprise, neither is she. The reader, but not Wilmet, has already twigged that the local Anglo-Catholic priests and servers are all gay, too. Modern readers may find them a little caricatured.

More here.

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