Civil to Strangers
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Top customer reviews
It was clearly right to make this work available. We'd otherwise be wondering about all those other things Pym had written that hadn't been published and that might, for all we knew, have been masterpieces. The early novel and three novellas, sadly, are not in the same league as Pym's later work - though they all have their moments.
The four short stories are slight, the two dating from the late 70s are clearly in Pym's own established 'voice' in a way the earlier work is not. It's nice to have more about Faustina the cat and the Aingers (characters from An Unsuitable Attachment) and the short story about being a guest at an Oxford college feast and meeting an old love who doesn't remember you - and where you too don't remember all you might, accurately about him.
The radio talk is charmingly modest; and tells us about the influence on Pym of Aldous Huxley, Ivy Compton Burnett, someone called Elizabeth and the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden - and Jane Austen and Trollope. The most interesting point, however, is where she says that at Oxford she wrote something about someone she was (unhappily) in love with - and later transmuted this into comedy in one of her novels. (Presumably, Henry Harvey who becomes the Archdeacon in Some Tame Gazelle). Sadly she doesn't tell us how she managed this...
In short, Pym is a really enjoyable novelist at her best, who sees deeply into the human heart and sees both the comedy and the tragedy of life. But here her gifts are not displayed at their best.
Harvey went to Finland in 1934, lecturing at a university, and married a Finnish girl in 1937; Pym wrote her `Finnish novel', which began as letters to him there and finished in 1938 as `Gervase and Flora'. Set in Helsingfors, this is truly a story of unreciprocated love bravely borne.
When World War II began, Pym remained at her parental home in Oswestry, and worked in a military canteen from 1939-41. During this time she wrote the three war stories: `Home Front novel', `So Very Secret' and `Goodbye Balkan Capital'. These all treat of the early years of the war as experienced in the English countryside, and the involvement of English women.
`Home Front Novel' opens with a First Aid class practising bandaging, goes on to show the arrival in a village of a batch of evacuees and the conversion of gardens to vegetable growing.
`So Very Secret' has another Cassandra heroine, `a country woman in early middle age ... My life is filled up with all the activities of a country village in wartime -- Red Cross and canteen work, besides church brasses and flowers'. We see Cassandra doing her canteen duty before she enjoys an espionage adventure in familiar Oxford, a London hotel, and a train from Paddington to the countryside, with an escape into another Red Cross lecture.
In `Goodbye Balkan capital' Laura, a member of the ARP Casualty Service, proud of her tin hat, listening to the radio news, learns of the dangerous position of a diplomatic body that includes a former university lover of hers, besieged in the Balkans. This derives directly from Pym's recorded hearing that the Belgrade Legation to which Jay belonged was missing (noted in her diary, April 1941).
In 1972 Pym retired to live in Finstock village, Oxfordshire. In `So, some tempestuous morn', early in the decade, she reminiscently shows us a young girl in Oxford pining for unattainable undergraduates, embarking on flirtation. `The Christmas visit', written in 1977, deals with Christmas observances in the English countryside.
`Across a crowded room', written in 1979, records an actual visit to an Oxford College for an anniversary dinner, as her real-life escort there, portrayed as `George', in fact Edwin Ardener, told the Barbara Pym conference in Oxford in 1986.
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