Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

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.)

37 thoughts on “Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

    1. Michael

      Yes i believe you’re right. It’s her voice. She can relate any narrative and it’s as if it is coming from a friend.

  1. Brian Joseph

    Pym sounds like she is worth reading. As I get older I am appreciating more and more laid back character studies. I would probably start with one of the author’s more famous works.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you should start with either Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence. Both are delightful examples of her style. (As you may know, she’s been likened to Jane Austen, so I think you’d appreciate her gentle observations — particularly on social situations.)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting how she was able to write older women so well at such a young age. At 28, Cassandra was relatively similar in age to Barbara back then, but the Bede sisters — who feature in another early novel, Some Tame Gazelle — were most definitely middle-aged. Modelled on imaginary future versions of Barbara and her sister, I believe!

  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I love Barbar Pym — she’s one of my very favorite authors. I first read a novel or two when I was extremely young and, although I enjoyed them, did so in a rather temperate way (the exception to was Quartet in Autumn, which I rather disliked as a downer). I read most of the novels again, many years later, and found that my opinion had changed from tepid approval to enthusiast regard. The last time through, about a decade ago, I regarded Pym as one of the greats! While some of the novels are naturally better or more appealing than others, her work as a whole is so humane and insightful; she may only look at a narrow slice of humanity but no one sees it clearer or with such charity and humor. There’s nothing terribly dramatic with Pymn, that and the domestic nature of her settings makes it very easy to overlook just how very good she is; perhaps this is why her work was wasted on me as a young reader. One major feature that drew me in on the re-reads was the reoccurrence of her characters in cameo roles from one novel to the next (I actually saw an academic paper on this subject a few years ago but, alas, failed to download it while I had access to the data bank).
    And did I mention how very, very funny I find her?
    As for Quartet in Autumn — on my last re-read, I thought it perhaps the best of her work (how we do change our opinion over the years!) but also the least representative.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting how our impressions of particular novels and writers can change as we age and develop in terms of life experiences etc. That’s certainly the case with Anita Brooker and other writers operating in a similar space. I think I’m lucky in that I came to Pym quite late in life, at an age when her quiet yet perceptive observations about the challenges of being a spinster chimed very strongly with me. And I agree, her focus on the everyday details of parochial/village life can mean she is underestimated by some – dismissed as a ‘clink of the tea-cups’ writer as some critics might say. Nevertheless, her insights into human behaviour are frequently spot-on, with a quiet poignancy to accompany the gentle humour she captures so well. Like you, I love the cameos as favourite characters make guest appearances in subsequent novels. Mildred Lathbury certainly crops up again after Excellent Women. As does Miss Doggett, I think? And Pym herself has a cameo role in No Fond Return of Love – very meta, so to speak!

  3. moirar2

    Unknown Pym! Fantastic! I thought I’d read (and loved) all there was. I know the unpublished ones tend not to be quite as good as the greats, but still always worth a look, I’ll be interested to see what you say about other previously unpublished works.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, any Pym — even a relatively minor one like this — has got to be a bonus in the current time. The other pieces are worth reading too, especially the short stories as they feel more ‘complete’. All in all, it’s a fascinating collection, particularly for fans of her work!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! She’s fantastic with names. There’s a Rockingham (or Rocky) in Excellent Women as well – obviously a favourite name as far as Pym was concerned.

  4. Julé Cunningham

    This sounds like marvelous fun – velvet coat and suede shoes? I laughed out loud at Rockingham Wilmot; minor Pym is still a major find. Look forward to your post on the other contents!

  5. heavenali

    Wonderful! I really loved this one too. It’s one of Pym’s that I have only read once, though one of the short stories was in that Virago WW2 story collection I (and you) read recently and I really enjoyed re-reading it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I love that story – Goodbye Balkan Capital – particularly as it has that wonderful mix of dry humour and undeniable poignancy. I’ll be giving it another shout-out in part two…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I recall you saying before that they all started to merge into one. She does benefit from a bit of spacing out, if that makes sense, so I’ve been trying to leave at least 6 months between reads. Otherwise, as you say, there’s a danger of overdosing. This might be a good one to pick up if you’re ever minded to try her again, especially as it’s a collection of several individual pieces. :)

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  7. buriedinprint

    This is one of hers that I’ve always avoided because a reading friend mentioned that it seemed so weak compared to her others, so I’m glad to hear that you’ve found it so satisfying. It’s not that I’m expecting it to be another Excellent or Quartet or Fond Return….but I didn’t want it to feel like half-a-Pym either, y’know?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s definitely more than half a Pym! As long as you approach it with realistic expectations I’m sure you’ll be fine. The characters are as delightful as ever, even if the plot itself is a little light. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d need to be a seasoned reader of Pym to appreciate these at their best. Not top-drawer by any stretch of the imagination, but utterly charming nonetheless!

  8. madamebibilophile

    I’m always a bit wary of rediscovered novels that have languished in a drawer somewhere for decades! But this does sound as if there is so much to enjoy here. You’ve inspired me to dive in to the TBR – I’m sure there’s some Pym in there somewhere…

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