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The Luck of the English : CIVIL TO STRANGERS AND OTHER WRITINGS by Barbara Pym; edited by Hazel Holt (E.P. Dutton:$18.95; 352 pp.) : TIME REMEMBERED by Miss Read; illustrated by Derek Crowe (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; 102 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles. and

In the 1960s, Barbara Pym's moderately successful career suffered a cruel reversal when publishers began rejecting her work as no longer suited to the taste of the times. Yet ever since her "rediscovery" in 1977, when the poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil named her in a Times Literary Supplement (TLS) survey of underrated novelists, readers of diverse tastes and backgrounds have been united in enjoyment and admiration of her writings. Out-of-print books have been reissued; rejected novels have at last been published, and Pym's masterly late novels, "Quartet in Autumn" and "A Few Green Leaves" (the latter published posthumously), crowned her career. Now, what Pym's faithful literary executor and editor Hazel Holt calls "Barbara's last sheaf, a final selection from her unpublished writings," is made available to us in "Civil to Strangers and Other Writings."

Its eponymous centerpiece is Pym's second novel, written in 1936, when she was 23. It is an elegant blend of freshness and surprising sophistication. Twenty-eight-year-old Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon, a model of wifely tact, is married to a handsome, romantic-looking, impossibly egocentric poet named Adam, whom "everyone expects her . . . to take seriously," a circumstance she finds rather tiresome. A literally "outlandish" admirer from Hungary, a trip to Budapest and a combination of small but significant shifts in characters and circumstances help to enlighten Adam (slightly, but sufficiently) and rekindle the romance in the Marsh-Gibbon marriage.

Less polished, but--in view of the "true story" behind it--more poignant is what Pym called her "Finnish" novel, written in 1937-38. It is told, at least partly, from the perspective of Gervase, a feckless young Englishman in flight from a worthy, if importunate young woman whom he considers too "jolly." He takes a job teaching English literature in Finland, where another young woman, his landlady's daughter, proceeds to fall in love with him. Enter Flora, the jolly, worthy Englishwoman, who bravely recognizes the futility of her passion for Gervase, which has "thrived" for years "on its diet of a cooling and pretty constant neglect." It is easy for her to be sympathetic with the Finnish girl, her putative "rival" for Gervase's still more putative affections. Flora, of course, is Barbara, portrayed here from a kind of dual perspective: as she imagines she may appear to the young man who does not return her devotion, and--more tentatively but more interestingly--as she sees herself.

The volume also contains an unfinished "Home Front" novel begun in 1939 and a spy novel, "So Very Secret," in which the dangers of wartime espionage are duly domesticated, Pym-style. Four short stories (not as good as her novels) and the transcript of a 1978 radio talk, "Finding a Voice," round out this "last sheaf."

No less than her more mature work, Pym's earlier novels show a writer who has already evolved a distinctive voice of her own. In "Civil to Strangers" she sets out to explore the tricky, uncharted territory of marriage (and the kind of relationship between an "excellent woman" and an exceedingly affected man that would become a Pym hallmark), and does so with remarkable confidence and boldness.

Dora Saint, who has made a career of evoking the discreet charms of English village life, writing some 30 novels under the pen name "Miss Read," first experienced its pleasures as a child of 7, when her family moved from London to Chelsfield in Kent. In "Time Remembered," the second volume of her autobiography ("A Fortune Grandchild" (1983) deals with her London infancy), Mrs. Saint looks back from the vantage of old age at the years 1921-24 and the world of the village and the country schoolhouse that she made her own.

"Miss Read" remembers the tiniest details, from the poems the children learned at school to the pale blue spots on the pale pink ribbon of the boater hat she used to wear. It is the same attention to the small details of ordinary life that has marked her fictional works, which she has been producing since 1955 at the rate of about one book a year.

Much less sophisticated, and in this sense, less "timely" than Pym's fiction, Miss Read's work managed to withstand the tempests of change that sweep through the publishing world, perhaps because her work was simpler, easier to classify. Or perhaps she was simply luckier.

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