The Question of Keith: A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

 A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

published 1958





If you read my previous posts on this book (mourning and – yesterday -  Wilmet’s dresses) and you know A Glass of Blessings well, you might be thinking ‘is she not going to mention Keith?’ – but now, you see, he needed his own post. Keith is a wondrous creation, a young man that we might feel we know. Wilmet almost sighs as she says

It was quite obvious that I was going to find it impossible to dislike Keith.

All of us, Wilmet, all of us.

He has just served up 'a pink and white gateau arranged on plastic doilies'. 

My favourite line comes at the end of the return event, when he has visited Wilmet’s upmarket suburban house for tea.

‘Wilmet, I have enjoyed myself,’ he said, fingering the curtains and turning them back to see if they were lined. I saw him give a little nod of approval when he discovered that they were.

Wilmet becomes bound to Keith for no good reason at all. She and her husband Roddy visit him at the coffee bar where he works, near Marble Arch. She questions him about religion:

I remembered thinking what a beautiful acolyte he would make, so I asked him if he ever went to church. ‘No, Wilmet, I’m afraid I never do,’ he said. ‘Church services are so old-fashioned, aren’t they? As a matter of fact, I once knew a boy who went to church. He used to wear a vestment – he looked ever so nice.’ I felt it was hardly worth the trouble to point out that it was only priests who wore vestments. Unless, of course, the friend had been a priest, which seemed unlikely.

The book has many a mysterious religious question in it.

I loved the pompous man who is horrified that his sister is thinking of becoming a nun:

‘What on earth will people say?’ he groaned… ‘We have never had anything like it in our family before,’ said Gerald, seeming to draw himself up to his full height.

[Wilmet replies:] ‘Perhaps not. But is it as bad as having a murder in the family, or even a divorce?’

And the Church of South India keeps cropping up:

‘We are hoping to go very thoroughly into the South India business this autumn.’ … Have the study groups on South India started yet?...[A vicar] considered that the attitude of the Anglican Church towards the Church of South India no longer entitled it to be regarded as a part of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Wilmet stalks Keith’s career as a male model, finding him in her knitting pattern collection:



In bed I turned the pages of the knitting book, looking for Keith. I soon found him, on the opposite page to a rugged looking pipe-smoking man who was wearing a cable stitch sweater which took thirty ounces of double knitting wool. Keith was leaning against a tree, one hand absently playing with a low-hanging branch. He wore a kind of lumber jacket with a shawl collar, knitted crossways in an intricate and rather pleasing stitch.



Pictures from Free vintage knitting patterns,  natch.

So tied up are Wilmet & Keith that they will turn up to be just glimpsed in a later book of Barbara Pym’s, No Fond Return of Love p 216

Dulcie’s attention was caught by a rather interesting-looking couple, who had come close enough for their conversation to be overheard. They were a tall, elegantly-dressed woman of about thirty-five, with a fur stole draped casually over her darkgrey suit and a frivolous little pink velvet hat, and a younger, smaller man, with dark hair cut in a medieval style, who was rather oddly dressed in tight-fitting blue jeans and an orange heavy-knitted cardigan. He had a flat, rather common little voice, which kept up a non-stop flow of conversation.

‘But, Wilmet,’ they heard him say, ‘how do they keep them clean? Those yellow curtains must be ever so dusty if they’re never taken down. That guide said the brocade was over a hundred years old. I call it disgusting.’

Keith really does have a life of his own.

He wears at various times a tangerine shirt and jeans, and a tartan shirt. The picture plainly shows James Dean in a reddish jacket, but I thought Keith would be quite taken with it.

Wilmet’s outfit is pretty much pictured in yesterday’s entry

Comments

  1. Keith is irresistible, though I'm bemused by his being described as oddly-dressed both in the quote above and by Wilmet at their first meeting, when he's wearing jeans and one of the two shirts you mention (can't remember which). Surely by 1958 young men in jeans were everywhere?

    It always surprises me slightly to be reminded that Wilmet is a knitter - the homeliness of it doesn't seem a good fit with her image of herself as an elegant and sophisticated woman of the world.
    Sovay

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    1. Christine Harding8 July 2024 at 12:57

      As late as the 1980s jeans-wearing young men were not accepted everywhere. I remember a young, male reporter turning up on his first day wearing (obviously new) jeans and being told in no uncertain terms his attire was not suitable for work. Ironically, it was the smartest he ever looked during his time with us!

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    2. That's very true - jeans are not acceptable in my workplace even today. However Keith is doing the weekend shopping when he first meets Wilmet so jeans don't seem inappropriate. Wilmet's a bit of a snob though (as the commenter below points out) so that may be the source of her disapproval.
      Sovay

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    3. I love a proper sociological discussion like this!
      In a book of the same era there is discussion of a holiday resort:
      'There’s a casino but we can’t go there. They won’t let you in until you got proper long trousers. Jeans won’t do. They got to be cloff.’ https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2016/05/tuesday-night-club-holidays-how-they.html
      which I very much enjoyed - I said it was one of my favourite phonetic spellings.
      I thnk there was a very clear line as to when you could wear jeans and when you couldn't. But Wilmet probably was just being snobbish...

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    4. I think what struck me was that Wilmet describes Keith's clothes as "odd", rather than inappropriate - as if she'd not come across this style of dress before - but I'm pretty sure there were jeans even in Vogue during the 1950s.

      It could just be that Wilmet is even more sheltered than she appears to be - Mildred Lathbury of "Excellent Women", being fully involved with the less glamorous activities of her church, would probably be quite accustomed to jeans-wearing youths at the boys' club.
      Sovay

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    5. I actually wonder if it his pairings with the jeans that are odd. I remember reading fashion magazines when I was young, and they were incredibly prescriptive about what tops could be worn with what styles of skirt or trousers: it was just plain wrong to make the wrong choices. I once did a quiz in one of the mags and failed drastically and thought I was never going to be able to cope with grownup life! I wouldnt be surprised if it was the same for men. I think a big cardigan with jeans might look odd to Wilmet.

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  2. Susanna Tayler8 July 2024 at 13:37

    I think it's fascinating that Wilmet and Rodney are not so much shocked by Piers's partner being a man, as by the fact that he's a bit "common". For some reason Keith is associated in my head with Joe Orton, presumably just through them both being gay and from Leicester - Keith would never dream of defacing a library book!
    And as I recall Mr Bason becomes a sort of gender-flipped version of the artsy smock-wearing teashop proprietress who appears quite frequently in mid-century novels.

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    1. Yes, it's all so interesting and strange isn't it.
      that's a wonderful description of Wilf in the smock, and exactly, I hadn't thought but very much the male equivalent of those ladies.

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  3. In fact, no one is shocked by the fact that Piers and Keith live together. I hadn't thought of Keith as Ortonesque!

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    1. However they each have their own room! The appearance of being just flatmates has to be preserved. Chrissie

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    2. Keith is very Ortonesque, well spotted! He just speaks through Barbara Pym. And in 1958 she can't have read his diaries, still less Kenneth Williams' chronicle.

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    3. In a Sarah Waters book set in WW2 - Night watch I think - the lesbian couple have to pretend to use both bedrooms in their flat for the benefit of the cleaning lady.
      Ortonesque is pefect.

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  4. I love that bit about the curtains too - and so generous of Pym to give us a glimpse of Wilmet and Keith in No Fond Return of Love. The whole Piers/Keith plot line is fascinating - particularly as regards what is NOT spelled out. After all it was not until 1967 that sex between consenting men in private became legal. Chrissie .

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    1. Yes, in real life it would have been a risky situation.

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    2. Susanna Tayler10 July 2024 at 01:36

      I think Piers and Keith's unremarkable domesticity feels very modern (despite the figleaf of the separate bedrooms). There's no sense of shame or tragedy or anything sordid.

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    3. There was very much a double standard, and people 'knew' what went on, and accepted flatmates and so on. I'm sure many people prided themselves on their tolerance and maturity. But at the same time it was still illegal, and people were harassed for it, there was a very real possibility of shame, prosecution, lives ruined.

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    4. And although lesbianism, unlike sexual relations between males, was never illegal in England, it was stigmatized. "Call the Midwife" has an episode in which two women, who met in the Land Army in WW2, must pretend to be landlady and lodger, not roommates and certainly not lovers. It's a poignant episode in which one insists on dying at home because her lover and partner would not be regarded as next of kin at hospital. Set in 1968: https://www.wgbh.org/tv-shows/drama/2023-03-19/call-the-midwife-season-12-episode-1-recap-the-spring-of-grief-strife

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    5. There must be many real-life similar stories, very sad. There was always an awareness that unmarried teachers from girls' schools often shared houses together. When we were young we just thought that was sensible.

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  5. I've always wanted to find that café where Wilmet and Piers eat gypsy tart.

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    1. Gypsy tart we used to have for school dinners.
      In general the food in the book makes you glad we have moved on....

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  6. What exactly are Anglo-Catholics? It seems like a contradiction in terms, considering England's break with Rome. Are they Protestants trying to be Catholics, but without that pesky pope? What Robin Williams called "Catholic Lite"?

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    1. They are o very 'High' Anglicans, meaning they are closer to the Roman Catholics.
      In Barbara Pym terms, it would be having elaborate vestments, incense, very decorated churches. 'Low' churches were much plainer, without any fancy bits.
      Any further than that I will leave description to others, in case I get it wrong - it's a very important distinction for those involved, but that does not include me!

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  7. I'm very curious now about Keith's "medieval" hairstyle ...
    Sovay

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    1. Oh that page-boy cut I should think - NOT flattering. I have a clear picture in my head, I'll have to see if I can find an illo!

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