Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Four lives in London

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

When I found a copy of this at Half Price Books last week, I decided it would be my first choice for the Barbara Pym Reading Week.  As I've mentioned before, I read some of Pym's books many years ago.  I enjoyed them, but they made no lasting impression on me, and I can't even remember now which ones I read.  Once I started blogging, I found such enthusiastic readers that I knew I had to try her books again.  I began with Excellent Women, which left me eager to read more. 

Quartet in Autumn was not what I expected in a "Barbara Pym novel."  I had no idea that any of her books included the phrase "F*ck off," even spoken by a passing unnamed character.  That made me realize that though I've read so little of her work, I've unconsciously type-cast her books: quietly ironic social comedies of spinsters, curates, tea, frustrated romances.  Actually, this book has all of those, but in a very different kind of story.  It is set in London in the 1970s, with immigrants swelling the population amid economic uncertainties.  The quartet of the title are two men, Norman and Edwin, and two women, Marcia and Letty.  All four are in their sixties, coming up on retirement after working together in an office for years.  We learn almost nothing about their work, what they do during office hours, other than talk.  Though circumspect, never sharing too much information, they know each other's situations.  Yet though each is single, and on his or her own (despite Edwin's married daughter and grandchildren), they don't meet outside of the office, even at lunch.  All go their own way, and the story follows them each in turn.  Looking back, it seems to me that we learn almost as little about Norman's life outside the office as his work inside, other than his constant worry about inflation and his fondness for butter beans.  Edwin's life is the Church, and he follows the liturgical year through the High Church parishes that he visits in turn.  Marcia has recently had a serious operation, and it is clear that she is not completely well, physically or mentally.  Her neighbors have noticed some odd behavior, though Janice, the social worker who visits regularly, never seems to notice that Marcia simply stonewalls her (Janice's inexperience is matched only by her self-complacency). 

Of the four, the two women are the closest to retirement.  While Marcia owns her small house, Letty plans to share her old friend Marjorie's cottage in the country.  But when Marjorie's situation changes, Letty loses that comfortable future and must make new plans.  She has already lost one home, when a Nigeran immigrant buys the house where she has rented a room for many years.  Though Letty has some concerns about living among Africans and immigrants, which her office-mates share, it is her new landlord's congregation, meeting in his flat and singing exuberant hymns, which finally drives her to move.

Barbara Pym does something wonderful with these quiet lives.  I agree with the cover blurb from The Financial Times about her "Extraordinarily delicate irony, fine writing, understated humour, and some bleak perceptions about the human condition."  I am still thinking about her people, wondering what happened to them, how their stories turned out.  Anbolyn has also written about Quartet in Autumn, and now I'm off to read her review, and see what other people are reading for the week - and maybe find my next book.


  1. I'm sure I'll probably appreciate this novel someday, but it just made me so darn sad! I was frustrated by their lack of connection and the missed opportunities to help and support each other - too much like real life, I suppose.

  2. I have this one on order. Your review has got me wishing it to hurry up and arrive.

  3. Anbolyn, it was not a light-hearted book - which was a surprise to me - but as you say, much like real life.

    Brona Joy, I know the pain of waiting for books - I have Some Tame Gazelle on order, since it seems to be high on people's lists. I saw on your blog that you're new to Pym like me - I'd be interested to see what you think.

  4. Quartet in Autumn was my first Pym novel. I knew nothing about her books at the time, so didn't find the darker tone or f-word surprising. Now I've come to realize how different it really is and am curious to reread.

  5. I've just finished reading my first Barbara Pym book (Less Than Angels) so it's too early for me to really know what a typical Pym novel is, but based on the little I do know of her work, this doesn't seem like something I would expect from her either. It still sounds interesting though, even if it's very different from her other books.

  6. JoAnn, did you come across this one on your own, or did someone recommend it - as a first Pym? I haven't read enough of her books to know which I'd recommend to a new reader.

    Helen, I haven't heard of Less Than Angels yet - none of the books I have has a complete list of her books. I did enjoy this one, it reminded me a bit of Penelope Lively's books.

  7. Lisa - I read Quartet in Autumn with a Yahoo book discussion group... maybe in 2004 or 5. I'd never heard of Pym before and was not an immediate convert. That came a few years later with Excellent Women (which I think is an ideal starting point).

  8. We're definitely QinA's two biggest fans! I loved it - even though it was profoundly depressing and with that worrying overtone of 'oh dear, who will find me dead one day?' But it was so relieved by the quirky humour and that sense that things could change at the end for Letty, if she finally managed to connect. And I loved Marcia stalking her doctor - such excellent characterisation.

  9. JoAnn, I agree (belatedly) that Excellent Women is a great starting point - it was for me, at least in rediscovering Pym. I haven't read enough of her other books (or don't remember them) to know what else to recommend to a new reader.

    vicki, I'm starting to worry that I didn't find it that depressing! I thought that Edwin added a lot of quiet humor with his pilgrimages. I really want Letty to stay with Mrs Pope.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!