There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial.
The Story of Quartet in Autumn
The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.
Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.
In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.
Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.
In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.
The older women in Quartet in Autumn
Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.
She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.
It is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.
Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.
Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.
Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.
Marcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.
Barbara Pym and her Writing
The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.
Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.
‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.
There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.
‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.
‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)
In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:
If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)
This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired.
Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.
An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013
From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp
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