Pym's world - the sweetness has a touch of lemon

Civil to Strangers and Other Writings, by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt. New York: E.P. Dutton. 388 pp. $18.95. ``If you like Jane Austen, you'll like Barbara Pym.'' Never, never tell your friends that. It annoys the Janeites who know no writer can even approach their beloved Jane, and it confuses those who deserve to find the charm - the unique charm - of Barbara Pym for themselves.

Of course, if the generations could be telescoped, it's easy to imagine Jane's and Barbara's village ladies exchanging pleasantries over a cup of tea, hot buttered toast, and mocha cake at the vicarage.

Most of their heroines - if that's the word for their main characters - tend to regard their carefully detailed world with the same ironic eye, quietly aware that they are superior to their menfolk, yet content not to compete with them. How Pym's ladies do insist on falling in love with the hopelessly wrong man! They see his faults and love him all the same.

No wonder they find that a state of all passion spent has its appeal, a kind of relief. As Barbara writes in her diaries (``A Very Private Eye''), it's like ``some comfortable chair and everything turned to mild, kindly looks and spectacles,'' a state she evokes so brilliantly in her novels. But, oh, the waste of such women, the waste of real-life women in Jane's day and Barbara's, too.

This latest (and alas, last) Pym book, prepared by her friend Hazel Holt after Pym's death in 1980, is, her publisher explains, ``A treasury of fiction, including a complete early novel, sections from three other novels, four short stories, and a radio talk.''

If you haven't yet met Miss Pym, don't begin with this book. It is not for you - yet. Any one of the nine novels completed during her lifetime would make a more inviting introduction. But those of us who are already converted are eager to pounce on any crumb left to us. And some of them are substantial.

As her editor says, `` is the characters, the incidents, the set pieces, and even the single observations that one remembers and cherishes.''

That observation holds true even for the novel that gives this book its title. It has some authentic Pym touches but is the least satisfactory part of this collection.

Many of the pieces collected here evoke the atmosphere of village life in wartime England - the faintly humorous side, of course. It all goes to show that novelists can do more for history than the historians. Thanks to Barbara's keen eye and love for detail, we feel what it was like to make a nice cup of tea, put up the blackout, worry about evacuees and coupons while all the while history rages without. And, of course, there is the constant chatter.

We know what this writer means when she says the poet John Betjeman had an influence on her. ``His glorifying of ordinary things and buildings ... made an immediate appeal to me,'' she said in her broadcast talk. Ordinary things, comforting routines, Barbara has a gift for preserving them. The effect is rather like Laura's memory in ``Goodbye Balkan Capital'' of a love affair:

Memory ``had kept only the happiness, enshrined in all its detail like those Victorian paperweights which show a design of flowers under glass, and which are now sought again, in days when Victorian objects are comforting relics of a period when the upper middle classes lived pleasant, peaceful lives and wars were fought decently in foreign countries by soldiers with heavy drooping moustaches.''

But to be accurate we have to mix the metaphor. Barbara never gives us sweetness without adding a refreshing touch of lemon.

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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