There are no sweet old people 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.
I originally read and reviewed this book for the Older Women in Fiction series on this blog. It was the 17thin that series that now has more than 30 contributions. What follows is a reworking of the original post. It’s my contribution to the 1977 club, hosted by Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings and StuckinaBook.
The Story of Quartet in Autumn
The quartet share an office and are dispensable. We never find out the purpose of their jobs 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 reveal that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has church activities, and Letty a widowed school friend with whom she plans to 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. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but 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. She is a troubling older woman, ill and somewhat odd. She cherishes her milk bottle collection. She troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get her to become more connected to other older people and is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.
However, she is not cut off entirely having perceived Norman’s lack of resources to deal with life while they worked together. Her kind bequest releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.
Ultimately Letty learns that her friend Marjorie has been jilted and now wishes to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this means she is significant in the lives of others. It is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it is about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’ (186).
Reading Quartet in Autumn
The darker themes of Quartet in Autumndo 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. Both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of social interactions.
Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiancé 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 welfare state. 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. In Quartet in Autumnshe describes 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 people, and especially about 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’. Elsewhere Barbara Pym suggested that single women, like herself, need to be ‘drearily splendid’. How little has changed in 40 years. Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept the prevailing view by showing us life from the perspectives of the four older people. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we doneed to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory and the two men.
Famously neglected, Barbara Pym’s 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 Autumnwas published later that year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novelson the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013
From the LA Review of Books 16thJuly 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knittingsurveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.
Quartet in Autumnby Barbara Pym, first published in 1977. I used the Pan/Picador edition. 186pp. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize
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