‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pym, Barbara

14 responses to “‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

  1. I’m glad to hear the end is not too downbeat – I fell off the Pym wagon before I got to this one, and I’m not sure I’m up to reading about lonely old people! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      This is my first book by Pym. It was at my local library and I recognised the author’s name from others blogs. This book really appealed to me but I haven’t really checked out any of her other books yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book sounds like just my thing. I’ve read one Barbara Pym and loved it. Great review, Jonathan!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Super review.

    I like character studies. I especially like them when the characters are a little quirky. This sounds like a very good one.

    I have also heard good things about Barbara Pym and really should give her books a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      The character studies are great. Pym switches between characters throughout the book. There are other characters as well but I only briefly mentioned some of those. Pym seems very fair towards her characters; she doesn’t let them off the hook but she cares about them.

      Like

  4. Great review. This is my favourite Barbara Pym novel. I think the portrayal of these characters is genius.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Yes, I agree. I like the way they grow throughout the novel, but only very slightly. Even the minor characters are portrayed realistically and sympathetically.

      I’ll have to read more Pym; do you think ‘Excellent Women’ will be the best one to try?

      Like

  5. I’ve yet to read this one, but my sense is that it’s darker than her early novels (the books she wrote before disappearing into the wildness for a number of years). The characterisation sounds excellent here. It’s one of her strengths, I think – this ability to make her characters endearing to the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      It’s a little dark but then that’s partly what appealed to me.

      I was impressed with how the story progressed. I was hoping it wasn’t just going to descend into complete misery for the characters and it didn’t. There is hope.

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  6. This was my first Pym too and I enjoyed it very much. She caught the characters of all four brilliantly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for a great review. I’ve read this book several times and don’t know that things have changed much since the 1970’s when the book is set. I really like the fact that Pym (and also Elizabeth Taylor) wrote about the difficulties of old age. Most novels are about the “marriage plot” and yet the “burial plot” become all the more salient as we get older.

    Thank you, Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I can see that it would be a great book to read again. It was great to see four single elderly characters being treated honestly rather than just the butt of jokes of other characters.

      Like

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