Civil to Strangers and Other Writings Summary

Barbara Pym

Civil to Strangers and Other Writings

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the late 1970’s, after years of neglect, Barbara Pym began to find the popularity and recognition that her skill deserved. When she died in 1980, she left a considerable body of work in manuscript. Three novels, notably AN ACADEMIC QUESTION, have since been published, and CIVIL TO STRANGERS AND OTHER WRITINGS can now be added to the list.

CIVIL TO STRANGERS was Pym’s second novel, written in 1936 when she was twenty-three years old and following her unsuccessful attempt to find a publisher for the first version of SOME TAME GAZELLE. The plot centers on the marriage of Adam and Cassandra, a self-centered writer and his dutiful, submissive wife. Their sedate, unadventurous lives, and those of others in their village, are disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious foreigner. An unexpected trip to Hungary, however, sorts everything out happily. Modeled on the novels of Elizabeth von Arnim, CIVIL TO STRANGERS is an immature work, with some weak dialogue and faults in characterization and plotting. Admirers of Pym, however, will note that her wry, detached humor is present in abundance, and her usual assortment of genteel English middle- and upper-middle-class characters, including the inevitable Church of England clergymen, is carefully assembled.

The abridged novels, all of which are early attempts, are of little intrinsic interest, and although the collection as a whole is entertaining, it will do little either to enhance or diminish Pym’s deservedly high reputation. Before judging her merits on these slight offerings, readers unacquainted with her work would be advised to read some of her more mature and polished novels.

The collection has been well edited by Pym’s friend and literary executor, Hazel Holt. Concise introductions to each piece give the circumstances of composition.