Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their gentle social comedy and musings on day-to-day village life. Civil to Strangers is an early Pym, written in 1936 when the author was just twenty-three. However, it lay dormant until 1987 when it was published alongside three unfinished novels (edited down by Hazel Holt) and four short stories.
In this early titular novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by excellent, unassuming women, thoughtless husbands, bespectacled curates, and one or two spikier characters. This is a world where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where social occasions consist of sherry parties and bridge. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.
Civil to Strangers revolves around Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her rather self-absorbed husband, Adam, a writer who is struggling with his craft – his attempts to fashion a novel about a gardener are not progressing well. Twenty-eight-year-old Cassandra is warm-hearted and dignified, yet Adam seems somewhat blind to her qualities, preferring to play the part of the tortured genius, complete with velvet coat and suede shoes.
Living alongside the Marsh-Gibbons in the small town of Up Callow are the rector, Rockingham Wilmot, his wife, Mrs Wilmot, and their nineteen-year-old-daughter, Janie. Mr Gay, a bachelor in his fifties, shares a house with his niece, Angela, a thirty-year-old spinster constantly on the lookout for an eligible man. Her latest target is Mr Paladin, the new curate in the parish, a bright young man in his mid-twenties with a degree from Oxford, who seems to be proving rather resistant to Angela’s charms.
Mr Gay and his niece occasionally gave an evening party. Perhaps they were still hoping that there was a rich woman or an eligible husband in the town whom they had somehow missed in their search. Certainly there was more hope for Angela then for her uncle, as a new curate has just come to Up Callow. He was twenty-six years old and unmarried, and Miss Gay had seized upon him almost as soon as he had arrived. Ever since then he had been contriving to avoid her. (p. 32)
Angela also has a soft spot for Adam Marsh-Gibbon, something that colours her rather spiteful behaviour towards Cassandra whenever the pair meet. Finally, for now at least, there is Mrs Gower, an amiable widow who, over the course of the novel, develops a rather touching relationship with Angela’s uncle, Philip Gay.
Into this sleepy community comes Stefan Tilos, a Hungarian gentleman with all the glamour and mystery of Budapest. Unsurprisingly, this rather unusual arrival sets the residents of Up Callow all of a flutter.
“Holmwood is let,” said Mrs Gower in tones of satisfaction, “and to a foreigner!”
“Oh!” Mrs Wilmot gasped. “Are you sure it’s true?”
“Oh yes,” Mrs Gower replied. “I saw him coming down the drive. Quite dark and wearing a black hat.”
“Really…” mused Mrs Wilmot, a smile stealing over her eager little face. After the black hat there could of course be no doubt. (p. 43)
When Angela Gay runs into Mr Tilos in the town, she is captivated by this handsome stranger, promptly dropping all thoughts of the eligible curate before you can say “knife”.
Cassandra, with her generosity of spirit, decides to throw a sherry party for Mr Tilos, giving him a chance to get to know the various residents in their circle. Naturally, Adam is not quite as enthusiastic as his wife – a creative talent should guard against such tiresome interruptions. As the occasion fast approaches, even Cassandra begins to doubt the wisdom of her decision.
“I’m beginning to wish we hadn’t asked this man,” said Cassandra to Adam as they were getting ready for the party. “After all, we don’t really know anything about him.”
“It is really very inconvenient to have invited anyone at all,” said Adam. “I am so busy, I really ought not to spare the time.”
Cassandra sighed. “Well, you can always rush out to your study if you’re suddenly inspired,” she said, for Adam’s inspiration was now coming very irregularly, and one never knew when to expect it. He had laid aside the novel about the gardener, as she had hoped, and was now at work on an epic poem, which was nearly as bad. (p. 65)
Mr Tilos it seems is smitten with Cassandra, forever bringing her gifts of flowers, Tokay wine and photographs of Budapest. Cassandra, for her part, has no desire to cultivate her admirer’s affections. Nevertheless, something must be done to give Adam a jolt. Perhaps if she went away on her own for a while, Adam might realise what is at risk. So, inspired by Mr Tilos’s love for Hungary, Cassandra decides to spend a fortnight alone in Budapest. Little does she know that Mr Tilos also happens to be travelling back to the city at the same time. In fact, as fate would have it, Cassandra and her admirer bump into one another on the train…
What follows is a gentle comedy as Cassandra tries to distance herself from Mr Tilos, hoping somewhat wistfully that Adam will ultimately decide to follow her to Budapest. To the residents of Up Callow, it looks as if Cassandra and Mr Tilos have run away together. So furious is Angela Gay at this development that she throws a pullover she has been knitting for Mr Tilos on the fire in disgust, leaving a detectable note of singed wool to linger in the house.
While Civil to Strangers is something of a minor Pym, there is a touch of The Enchanted April to the story with its themes of unappreciative husbands and a desire for transformation. As ever with Pym, the characters are lovingly drawn, particularly Cassandra with her observant nature and grounded approach to life. A thoroughly enjoyable story that will please fans of this author’s other work.
More Pym next month when I’ll be posting a second piece covering the unfinished novels and short stories – there really is quite a lot to appreciate in this lovely collection.
(My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago.)