Civil to Strangers and Other Writings

Civil to Strangers and Other Writings

by Barbara Pym


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Thanks to his wife's money, Adam Marsh-Gibbon leads a charmed life writing poetry and novels celebrated mostly by his fellow residents in the town of Up Callow in Shropshire, England. His lovely wife Cassandra caters to his every whim, although perhaps not as enthusiastically as five years earlier, when she first married her handsome yet difficult and unappreciative husband. Into their lives steps Mr. Stefan Tilos, the new tenant of Holmwood, a dashing Hungarian who puts the whole town in a flutter. How alarming then, that he should become so visibly enamoured of Cassandra. Mrs. Marsh-Gibbon is certainly above reproach. Or is she? Barbara Pym wrote Civil to Strangers in 1936. It was first published posthumously in 1987, thanks to her friend and biographer Hazel Holt.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780517027523
Publisher: Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/28/1990
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was born in Oswestry, Shropshire. She was educated at Huyton College, Liverpool, and St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she gained an Honours Degree in English Language and Literature. During the war she served in the WRNS in Britain and Naples. From 1958-1974 she worked as an editorial secretary at the International African Institute. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, was published in 1950, and was followed by Excellent Women (1952), Jane and Prudence (1953), Less than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958) and No Fond Return of Love (1961). During the sixties and early seventies her writing suffered a partial eclipse and, discouraged, she concentrated on her work for the International African Institute, from which she retired in 1974 to live in Oxfordshire. A renaissance in her fortunes came in 1977, when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil chose her as one of the most underrated novelists of the century. With astonishing speed, she emerged, after sixteen years of obscurity, to almost instant fame and recognition. Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The Sweet Dove Died followed in 1978, and A Few Green Leaves was published posthumously. Barbara Pym died in January, 1980. For more information, please go to:

Read an Excerpt


''Tis silence all,

And pleasing expectation.'

'Dear Cassandra,' smiled Mrs. Gower, 'you are always so punctual.' She leaned forward, and brushed Cassandra's cheek with her lips. Cassandra responded with a similar gesture, a little awkwardly, for Mrs. Gower was a large woman, and her cheek was rather difficult to reach.

'I always try to be punctual,' said Cassandra with a smile, although the flat, even tone of her voice implied that she had made the remark many times before.

'You have every virtue, my dear,' said Mrs. Gower warmly, as they settled themselves on the sofa.

Cassandra sighed, although not loudly enough for Mrs. Gower to hear. She knew that she had every virtue, because people were always telling her so. She was twenty-eight years old, a tall, fair young woman, not exactly pretty, but comely and dignified. This afternoon she was wearing a well-cut costume of blue tweed. Her hat and shoes were sensible rather than fashionable. Cassandra could always be relied upon never to wear anything unsuitable to the place she happened to be in at the time.

'I asked Mrs. Wilmot and Janie to come this afternoon,' said Mrs. Gower. 'I suppose you didn't see any sign of them as you came past the rectory?'

'No,' said Cassandra. 'As a matter of fact I didn't come that way. I had to do some shopping. I'd forgotten some things in the town.'

'What a consolation to know that you are human like the rest of us!' laughed Mrs. Gower.

Cassandra smiled a little sadly. People so often raised doubts as to her humanity that she sometimes wondered whether she was not indeed some unearthly being, who had found her way into the small town of Up Callow as the wife of Adam Marsh-Gibbon, a gentleman of means, who wrote a little poetry and a few obscure novels.

Actually, most of the money that enabled Adam to lead this pleasant life was Cassandra's, but she never reminded him of it. Before they were married she had implied that everything she possessed was as much his as hers, if anything more his, for she had been so grateful that he returned her love that she would have done anything for him. After five years of marriage her rapture had died down a little, for Adam was in many ways difficult, but she was still pleasantly surprised when she realized that this handsome and distinguished-looking man was her husband and nobody else's.

'There goes another tree,' said Mrs. Gower suddenly. 'The noise they make is quite frightening until one realizes what it is. I'm hoping they'll cut down that big one next. It will make this room so much lighter,' she added.

'Adam loves trees,' said Cassandra. 'He says it grieves him so much to think of these opposite your house being cut down.'

'Oh, well, of course he's a poet,' said Mrs. Gower tolerantly, although she had never yet succeeded in understanding his poetry at all perfectly. Nor had she tried very hard, for since she had been a widow it had no longer been necessary to pretend an interest in literature. 'My late husband used to like the open spaces better,' she declared. 'When he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, we lived at Headington, although our first house in Norham Road was rather shut in ... that must be Mrs. Wilmot and Janie arriving now,' she said suddenly.

The door opened and in pattered a grey-haired and grey-coated little woman, accompanied by a dark, slender girl about nineteen years old, who walked meekly beside her.

'Dear Kathleen, I'm so glad you were able to come. And Janie too. Holidays again?' said Mrs. Gower, with a kind of vague brightness which she adopted when speaking to all really young people.

Janie smiled patiently. 'Oh, no, I've left school,' she said. 'I'm helping Mother at home.' She was relieved that neither Mrs. Gower nor Mrs. Marsh-Gibbon went any deeper into the subject. For everyone knew the kind of life that the dutiful elder daughter of the rector of a country parish must lead, and Janie conformed exactly to that pattern. She taught in the Sunday school, helped with the GFS, and spent a great deal of time decorating the church.

'I thought the font was so prettily decorated at Easter,' said Cassandra, remembering that it had been Janie's own particular contribution to the decorations.

Janie looked pleased. 'I'm so glad you noticed it. I was afraid I had put in too much greenery.'

The arrival of tea excused her from the necessity of enlarging further upon the subject, and the conversation turned once more to the trees that were being felled opposite Mrs. Gower's house.

'The new tenants of Holmwood can't be very fond of trees,' said Mrs. Wilmot. 'I suppose nobody knows whether it really is let? I heard that some people had been looking over it, but of course they may not have taken it. It's a very old-fashioned house, and would need a lot of alterations.'

'And Rogers was telling me that if they take a brick out the whole house will collapse,' said Mrs. Gower, in tones of melancholy satisfaction, for she had built for herself a large black and white house which still looked very new. When her husband had died eight years ago, she had decided to come back to Shropshire, where she had lived as a girl. Over the front door of her house she had put a slab of stone, with A.D. 1929 engraved on it, but somehow one never imagined the house becoming old, not even in a thousand years' time. Mrs. Gower did not mind this newness at all. She liked solid, well-built comfort, with electric light and central heating, better than all the glories of the past.

'Rockingham is wondering if they will be church people,' said Mrs. Wilmot rather hopelessly, for the last inhabitants of Holmwood had been wealthy, generous, but, unfortunately, Roman Catholics.

'I do hope they will be,' said Cassandra sympathetically, smiling a little as she always did when she heard the rector's Christian name.

There was a short silence during which they heard another tree fall. This noise was followed by that of a car stopping near Mrs. Gower's house. Mrs. Wilmot could not resist getting up and going to the window to look.

'Two men have got out,' she said, 'and they're walking up and down the drive, looking at the trees, I think. What are they doing? They seem to be putting up a sort of notice.'

By this time the others had risen and come to the window. 'They are putting up a notice,' confirmed Mrs. Gower. Reading slowly she began to decipher the notice word by word. Everyone agreed that it was disappointing. It merely said 'PEA STICKS & FIREWOOD FOR SALE. ALSO WOOD FOR RUSTIC FRAMES. APPLY WITHIN. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.'

'Well,' said Mrs. Wilmot in a flat voice, 'so that's all. I wonder what they mean by rustic frames?' she added, brightening up a little, as if it might possibly be something exciting.

Nobody seemed able to enlighten her and there was a depressed silence until Cassandra remarked that Mrs. Gower's pink tulips would soon be out.

'They're such lovely things,' she said. 'Adam says that they're the heralds of summer. We always think the weather grows warmer when they come out.'

'A writer must be very sensitive to Nature,' remarked Mrs. Wilmot. 'Of course Wordsworth was, wasn't he?' she added uncertainly.

'Oh, yes, I'm sure he must have been,' said Cassandra distastefully, for Adam always quoted Wordsworth at her when he was in a bad temper, so that for Cassandra the great poet of the Romantic Revival was inevitably associated with quarrels with her husband.

'How is your husband's book getting on?' Janie asked Cassandra shyly. She thought Adam Marsh-Gibbon quite the handsomest man she had ever seen and accordingly his writings had an added glamour about them.

Cassandra smiled kindly. 'Well, at present he is working on rather a difficult chapter,' she said.

'I suppose every author gets stuck occasionally,' said Mrs. Gower.

'The inspiration flows less easily,' interposed Mrs. Wilmot, thinking that it was a more suitable phrase.

Cassandra smiled at both of them. 'That's just it,' she said, making each woman feel that she had said exactly the right thing. 'It's so nice of you to ask after Adam's book,' she said, turning to Janie. 'People are so kind,' she added vaguely, almost as if her husband were an invalid who needed sympathetic enquiries.

'Would you like to see round the garden?' asked Mrs. Gower, feeling that there was not much to talk about now that the subject of the new tenants of Holmwood and Adam Marsh-Gibbon's book had been exhausted.

Cassandra sprang eagerly to her feet. 'I should love to,' she said. 'I was admiring what I could see of it when I came in.'

'I'm afraid we must be going,' said Mrs. Wilmot hastily, for she disliked walking round gardens in her best shoes. 'Come, Janie ... I always say that the worst of being married to a clergyman is that there's always some good work to be done.'

'But I'm sure that must come naturally to you,' said Cassandra.

Mrs. Wilmot smiled and told Cassandra to be sure to wish Adam good luck with his novel.

Cassandra thanked her. She liked the idea of Adam being wished good luck with his book, as if he were rowing in the Boat Race, or had a horse running in theDerby.

When the Wilmots had gone, Mrs. Gower and Cassandra walked slowly round the garden, deep in gardening talk. Cassandra was completely happy, and all thoughts of Adam were absent from her mind as she and Mrs. Gower discussed the advantages of taking up gladioli in the winter, or of raising aubretia from seed.

When she left, Cassandra took with her a large paper carrier, containing several new plants for her rockery.

'You know,' said Mrs. Gower confidentially, 'I can't help feeling that the new tenants of Holmwood are going to be rather interesting. I've a sort of premonition,' she declared, with a glance at the fallen trees in the drive opposite.

'I hope your premonition will come true,' laughed Cassandra. 'I always think it's such a fascinating house with all those queer little turrets. Adam says it reminds him of the Castle of Otranto.'

That must be somewhere in Italy, thought Mrs. Gower, but she did not say anything, as Adam Marsh-Gibbon so often meant something one had never heard of.


'These are the haunts of meditation'

Adam Marsh-Gibbon's study was the nicest room in the house. Cassandra had insisted, and so he was spared the necessity of having to be selfish about it. This was one of Cassandra's special virtues, that she anticipated her husband's wishes almost before he knew what they were. Some men would have been irritated by this, but Adam always pretended that he was so engrossed in his art that he did not have time to think of where he should have his study, or in which chair he should sit in the drawing room after dinner.

On this evening in early spring he was sitting at a table, deeply engrossed in The Times crossword puzzle. All around him was a litter of papers covered with his fine spidery handwriting. His new novel was not going very well. Hitherto he had been able to say very much the same things in all of them, with a few variations and slightly different characters. He was proudly described by the admiring inhabitants of Up Callow as a 'philosophical' novelist, but his philosophy, such as it was, was beginning to wear a little thin, and he did not know where to find another. It was over a year since the publication of his last novel, Things For Ever Speaking, and already his public was beginning to get impatient, he thought. He was a vain man, and valued especially his reputation in Up Callow, because it was really the only reputation he had. He enjoyed autographing his novels and poems and was always delighted to give a lecture to the Literary Society on The Craft of the Novelist.

Even the rector admired Adam's works, not so much for the ideas expressed in them, which were vaguely Wordsworthian, but because they were fit for his daughters to read. They might be a little above their heads, for the rector had a low opinion of female intelligence, but at least one didn't have to hide them away, like so many of the novels that were written nowadays.

Adam heard the front door open and, looking at his watch, saw that it was twenty past six. That must be Cassandra coming home from Mrs. Gower's, he thought. He pushed his novel away from him and took up the crossword again.

Cassandra went upstairs to her bedroom. Her feet made no sound on the thick carpets. This house was always quiet, especially in the evenings when there was no bustle of housework. It was understood that the master liked to get on with his writing after tea. Lily and Bessie looked upon it with some suspicion, but they admired Cassandra and for her sake they put up with Adam's late rising and untidy ways.

Cassandra opened the door of her room, taking care not to let it bang as she shut it. Living with an author had made her almost inhumanly quiet in her movements, so that shutting doors softly came as naturally to her as breathing.

It was a large, pleasant room, decorated in blue and primrose yellow. Adam's room, which led out of it, was much more gloomy, for it had been designed at a time when Adam had ideas about interior decoration. The walls were grey and the carpet black and very thick. The long curtains at the windows were of heavy crimson velvet, so that Cassandra could not help thinking of a super cinema every time she went into the room. On the wall opposite the bed hung a large reproduction of Böcklin's picture 'The Island of the Dead'. It was the first thing that caught his eye when he awoke in the morning, so that even if he had intended to begin the day cheerfully by leaping out of bed at eight o'clock, he was nearly always plunged into gloom again at the sight of it and would sit brooding in bed until lunch-time.

Cassandra went to her wardrobe and took out a plain, black velvet dress. It suited her fairness and she thought a bright colour might jar on Adam if he had been having difficulty with his novel. She put on only the merest suspicion of lipstick and went downstairs looking nice but inconspicuous. In her earlier twenties she had occasionally indulged in scarlet nail varnish with lipstick to match, but now, since her marriage, she had felt less tempted to break out.

She knocked at the door of Adam's study so quietly that he need not have heard if he hadn't wanted to. But as he was stuck both with his novel and the crossword, he welcomed her interruption.

Cassandra went up to him and kissed his cheek. He stood up, smiling rather wearily, and put his arm round her waist. He was slightly taller than she was, a good-looking, thin-faced man, with dark hair and grey eyes. He was thirty-two years old. His elegant clothes were always very much admired, although nobody in Up Callow would have dared to copy his velvet coats and suede shoes. These were the trappings of genius, even if those who had the opportunity of knowing were reminded of a young aesthetic undergraduate.

'It's chicken for dinner,' Cassandra said.

'I could eat a whole chicken, now, at this minute,' said Adam. 'I haven't been able to do much writing this evening and I feel hungry. I don't believe I've had anything to eat since luncheon,' he added.

'Oh, Adam,' said Cassandra in a shocked voice, 'surely Lily brought you some tea?' 'I don't remember any,' he said absently.

Cassandra laughed. 'I'll see if Bessie can manage to let us have dinner a bit earlier,' she said.

In the kitchen she said, 'I hope you gave the master a good tea, he gets so hungry when he's working.'

Lily and Bessie smiled tolerantly, for writing was hardly what they would have called work.

'Oh, yes, madam,' said Lily in her precise voice. 'He had a nice boiled egg.'

'And he fancied a bit of that tinned salmon,' chimed in Bessie, eager to show that everything had been done as it should be in Cassandra's absence.

Over dinner, she reminded Adam about the boiled egg and the tinned salmon, wondering how it was possible to forget such a meal. 'Are you sure you were wise to have the salmon, dear?' she asked anxiously. 'You know tinned things don't agree with you. I only keep them in the house because Lily and Bessie like them. When you read about food poisoning cases in the paper, they've nearly always eaten tinned salmon.'

'And tinned apricots and fish and chips and ice cream as well,' interposed Adam, and fell into a gloomy silence.


Excerpted from "Civil to Strangers and Other Writings"
by .
Copyright © 2013 the estate of Barbara Pym.
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