“Civil to Strangers” was published after Barbara Pym’s death. It was influenced, according to the introduction, by Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Enchanted April”. There are some parallels in Pym’s novel, but certainly the humor and characters are all her own!
I read this book while on vacation in Cape Cod. It was a super beach read. I enjoyed reading Pym’s dry wit once again and her ‘situations’ that occur. Cassandra’s meek and subservient attitude toward her selfish and vain husband, Adam, irritated me, and I wanted to see if Stefan Tilos, who is so enamored of her, would change how she acted.
“Stefan Tilos considered himself a very ordinary man. He was genuinely surprised when so much interest was shown in his coming to live at Holmwood. After thinking about it, he came to the conclusion that it must be because the English were naturally gemutlich. They welcome a poor foreigner – Mr. Tilos sometimes had rather ridiculous ideas about himself – into their midst as if he were one of themselves, he thought, not realising that he was not, and never could be , anything so dull as one of themselves.”
Stefan begins to take an interest in Cassandra, visiting her often, and bringing her gifts. Cassandra feels very awkward as her husband, Adam, doesn’t seem to even notice the competition!
“Perhaps he has fallen in love with you. I don’t very much care for this fish. Is it plaice?” Adam lifted up a piece on his fork and sniffed it suspiciously. “Do you think it’s quite good?” he asked.
Cassandra looked at him. It saddened her to think that her husband could be more concerned with the goodness or otherwise of a piece of plaice than with the possibility of a rival for his wife’s affection.”
There is another character though that irritates me even more than Cassandra (and is probably meant to! ) Angela Gay is probably even more vain and selfish than Adam Marsh-Gibbons. Angela decides that Mr. Tilos should fall in love with *her*, not Cassandra, and she takes steps to ensure that that happens. Mr. Tilos plays along at first, to provoke some necessary interest and envy in Cassandra.
However, Cassandra is just relieved that someone else is taking up his time and unwanted attention (although sometimes his attentions are useful to provoke her husband, Adam, to treat her better!)
“I think we shall be better when we have settled down for the winter,” she said in a firm tone of voice.
Cassandra liked the definiteness of this last remark. She imagined the evenings drawing in, fires in the morning, and autumn leaves falling untidily over the garden, Mr. Tilos back in Budapest, and the events of this disturbed summer behind them. Then she saw that the lupins were out and that it was only June. There was a great deal to be got through before October.”
Cassandra decides that Adam needs a shock….so she does take action. However her action has unforeseen circumstances that require fast thinking, and a ‘way of escape’. Because, while Cassandra is (irritatingly!) meek and mild, she is not devious and how she manages to save both her and her love interest’s reputation is quite entertaining.
Clever Ms. Pym leaves it to the reader’s imagination as to whether or not Adam will change… whether he has ‘woken up’ or whether his habit of self-service is totally beyond redemption! What intrigues me is Cassandra’s character, because, although at times she is frustrated by Adam’s selfish behavior, she always seems to do the right thing and respond correctly. The reader finds him or herself ‘pulling for’ Cassandra and hoping Angela gets her comeuppance.
The best kind of writing is when one can engage with the characters and continues to read, hoping to find a satisfying end to the story. Barbara Pym has proven herself worthy of another good read.