Published posthumously, Civil to Strangers and Other Writings is a collection made up of one of Barbara Pym's novels, several fragments of unfinished novels, a few short stories, and an essay adapted from a BBC radio talk she gave about finding a voice as a writer. It's a must-read for any Pym fan. As a whole, this collection is to Pym what something like Lady Susan or The Watsons is to Jane Austen--something that ardent fans probably pick up once they've worked their way through the rest of the author's works and are left wanting more. Luckily for me, this is just the fourth book of Pym's that I've read, so I have many more of her novels ahead to look forward to.
The complete novel, Civil to Strangers, is just as delightful a read as Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence. It features a comically selfish husband who doesn't appreciate his wife until a series of slight miscommunications has her running off to Europe with a foreign admirer who's just moved into the village. The three unfinished fragments are both charming and frustrating in that they left me wishing they had been developed into full novels. "Home Front Novel" is set in a typical quaint Pym village and shows how the villagers' lives are enhanced by their efforts to support the home front during WWII. "Gervase and Flora" is set among a community of British expatriates in Finland and "So Very Secret" is a traditional spy novel, with the twist that it starts a cast of Pym's "excellent women". Although the latter made it easy to see that the spy genre wasn't Pym's forte, it was also one of the funniest spy stories I've ever read and had me laughing out loud in public--always the true benchmark of literary humor. And finally, the essay based on her radio talk offers insights into the diverse group of authors that Pym considered to be influences--everyone from Austen to Proust, Henry Green to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Pym's thoughts about writing show that, despite the somewhat unassuming quality of her work, she was a part of the important literary thinkers of the last century.