Barbara Pym is one of these authors whose work was skipped over for a few years (14 years I believe, 1963 – 1977), but this book, Quartet in Autumn, was first published in 1977 was her comeback novel. I didn’t read it until 2006! It was my introduction to Barbara Pym and I have gone back and read some others, A Glass full of Blessings (1958 – read in 2013) and Excellent Women (1952 – read in 2006).
Quartet in Autumn
by Barbara Pym
1977 /186 pages
rating: 8.75 / 20th century (classic)
Pym’s early works were intended for readers of my mother’s generation but were still (or again) quite popular for mine. Her first books were published back in the early 1950s, and there are many who feel those early works were her best. So perhaps her reputation garners entrance into the “classic” category – I’d say yes. Pym was 64 years old when she wrote “Quartet in Autumn” just about the time she herself might have really started to feel her own mortality, her age, her situation in life – especially back then.
The setting of Pym’s near classic is 1970s London and the story revolves around 4 employees of an unnamed company – maybe insurance? The issue is that the four are apparently getting on in years and ready for retirement, yet they are all essentially alone in the world.
They each have their own ways and are rather set in them – they never visit each other outside of the office and for instance, they don’t share lunches and although they all use the library, they go individually and for their own purposes.
Change is a huge theme here. Changes in society including within the church and the church’s place in society, race and language, as well as in their individual situations and even their own bodies. Yes, life has changed quite a lot since these four, who are now at or close to retirement age, were young, before WWI. And life and society keep changing – the mail girl is young and black!
Edwin Braithwaite, a widower with a daughter in Beckenham, checks the clerical directory at the library. He is far more attached to his local parish and the church calendar its activities govern his life.
Norman, always a bachelor, has his solitary ways, visiting the museum or the library (to see mummified crocodiles. ) when he can or the husband of his late sister on special occasions. He lives alone in his “bedsitter” and is apparently very frugal. No particular religious connection.
“Miss” Marcia Ivory, never married, lives in a rather large house, alone since her old cat as well as her mother died. She occasionally uses the library to dispose of unlikely trash. Now the social service worker seems to think she needs looking in on. Marcia recently had an operation which “removed” something – a mastectomy? She does have some rather peculiar habits (hoarding and bird-like eating) and tends to be reclusive although she certainly pays attention to her operating doctor. No particular religious connection – Protestant. – Marsha is actually rather disappointed when a man gets up after a fall and she enjoys seeing the effects of an auto wreck.
“Miss” Letty Crowe , who also has never married, has set her retirement date although that’s rather subtle. She’s never married . She uses the library to check out novels. At the book’s opening, Letty lives in a rooming house which has a new owner, an African minister whose religion is more raucous than what she is used to. She has a widowed friend who lives in the country. She really needs to move. No particular religious connection.
These are four delicious characters for a reader willing to work a bit to distinguish the subtle variations.
Although only one of the four is actively attached to a church, religion/church seems to play a fairly large role in the novel as a whole – in the background three of these people don’t really want, and likely will not be, getting assistance from the church. Furthermore, except for Edwin only Norman might find it acceptable – because it could possibly save him some money or provide a safety net.
Their mortality haunts them as they read articles in the newspaper or see incidents in their lives. Norman especially is concerned about “falling through the net of the welfare state,” being found “dead by starvation,” or even being unable to open a can of food. He buys fresh and doesn’t stockpile like Marsha.
Over the course of a year the four employees, the “quartet” of the title, go on their holidays. This is when Letty finds out her good friend, a widow who lives in the country, has a boyfriend (a clergyman). So Letty’s retirement plans are not to be as her old friend gets engaged, but she can’t very well stay with the African minister and his people. So, thanks to Edwin’s help, she moves in with the elderly and rather snoopy Mrs Pope.
When it’s Edwin turn for a holiday he goes with his daughter and her family and has a great time but, well, they are concerned about Edward because he is getting older. He does think briefly about Marsha – but it’s more about her breasts (mastectomy) when he sees a magazine.
Marsha really doesn’t want to go anywhere although Edwin’s church people did approach her. Her holiday included a visit to her doctor and then snooping to find his house.
Norman stays home, eats a bit better, reads, and thinks about his co-workers a bit: “If they could see me now!” He wears a brightly colored rayon dressing gown and considers Marsha’s dressing gown – very briefly, the thought seems disturbing. He visits his dentist and complains about the money, doesn’t use all his vacation time.
So now Letty needs help finding a more suitable place to live. Edwin checks out his church associations, Norman kind of ignores it, and Marcia worries she may be called on to help what with her big house and all. Edwin saves the day with rather snoopy Mrs Pope who is elderly but active and has an extra room in her house.
Then Christmas and Boxing Day come and go and the “quartet” manages. Edwin goes to the home of his daughter and her family, but he’s had plenty when its over. Norman goes to dinner with his old brother-in-law and the fiancé, but he’s glad to get back to his room and looks forward to seeing his fellow workers. Marsha is invited over to the home of her younger neighbors, but barely eats and leaves early. Letty spends the day with Mrs Pope who cancelled her own plans – these two barely have dinner together. On Boxing Day Marsha cleans a cupboard, while Letty looks forward to the next day’s “Kensington sales.”
The point of all this is these very different people are rather isolated from close friends and family, from any real kind of support group. They only have their age, their employment and their aloneness in common. Still, they do have the possible makings of a start at one at work.
The year goes on – they group gets back from Christmas holiday with no complaints and very little to do- a prior chairman none of them knew died and Edwin attends the Memorial Service as a representative of the department but is very put off by the new “agnostic” type of service and the more stylishly dressed attendees. Later, Edwin wonders about his own funeral.
And then Letty’s retirement is coming up and so too, Marsha’s – they’d have a state pension and a small luncheon “party” was in order. A deputy assistant director gives a speech about both – but no one seems to know what they did and they can probably be replaced by computers. It’s really rather funny and the whole office is there, not only their department. But Marcia and Letty are most comfortable with Edwin and Norman. And then they pack up and leave – it’s awkward.
So Marcia and Letty are out in the world and Edwin and Norman are alone in the office.
Marcia starts sorting the plastic bags she has hoarded in an upstairs room and forgets to eat enough – breakfast and some bits of moldy bread,
Letty tries to accomodate her situation with that of Mrs Pope who gets up early and goes to church. Letty puts on a nice suit and goes to the library seeing the office as she passes –
Edwin and Norman wonder what the “girls” are doing – they miss them.
Afterwards Letty is tired and reading isn’t going to fill the time while Letty sits with the radio in the dark and doesn’t remember the day.
And still life goes on – Letty tries a bit and decides that travel is not her thing. The Social Services lady visits Marcia who doesn’t want any help thank you very much, but she looks bad and the house is worse. Letty sent a post card to Marcia but Marcia has no use for visiting anyone. Marjorie is busy with her wedding and being able to be “useful,” Letty is not useful anymore at all – to anyone. Letty feels like a failure.
Edwin wants to take the “old dears” to lunch. Norman really objects but finally gives in. They meet at the office which the guys have now taken over except for a spider plant (symbolism – metaphor?). it’s a rather humorous scene, but all goes well. They all act as usual.
Marcia finds her old market is closed up – gone – times change. To the library where Letty went and gives her the milk bottle she’s been saving up to return to her. Letty puts it in the trash and refuses to think about what might possibly drive Marcia’s thinking.
Marcia tries to find the grave of her old cat Snowy but the yard is way overgrown – Norman walks by her house and they see each other but don’t speak. Letty visits with Marjorie and decides she will never go into the home next door. Marcia goes to see Dr Strong – realizes she’s wrong in doing that – like Norman at her house.
The social worker goes to see Marcia after being gone for a couple weeks – finds her unconscious at her table. Edwin and his friend Fr G walk over and see the social worker just coming out. Marcia lands in the hospital – Edwin calls Letty who is *watching TV!*
Actually, Marcia wanted to land in the hospital because she might get to see Dr. Strong.
I’m not sure I really see these folks as being elderly but that’s changed in these 40 years since the book was published.
This is one of those “good enough for more than one reading” books but chosen this time by the Booker Prize group for a good discussion. It was a short lister for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 when “Staying On” by Paul Scott won the prize. I read it about 10 years ago – 2006. This time I’m read it in Kindle format.
And reading it 35 years after it was first published the reader cannot help but observe the societal (and technological) changes since the time it was written – this also contributes to the book being viewed as a classic.