I am sure that many readers will agree with me when I declare that it is such a treat to come to a Barbara Pym novel. I so enjoy her writing, but have been trying to eke out the few books of her oeuvre which I have not yet read, so that I know I have some treats in store. I had not picked up a Pym novel in such a long time that I requested a lovely Picador copy of Quartet in Autumn from my local library, and began it almost as soon as I checked it out.
Pym was relatively well celebrated during her early publishing career. However, there was a gap of sixteen years between her first six novels and the publication of Quartet in Autumn. In this time, Pym had fallen rather out of favour; she was declared ‘the most underrated writer of the century’ by Philip Larkin. She has thankfully enjoyed a resurrection of sorts in recent years, thanks largely to Virago Press reissuing the majority of her books.
The Picador edition contains an introduction written by Alexander McCall Smith. This does give rather a lot of the story away, so I must admit that I did not read his critique of the novel in full before I began; rather, I came back to it. He comments that Quartet in Autumn is a ‘delicate and poignant novel [which] was the crowning glory of a literary career that in many respects reflected the author’s life.’ McCall Smith, quite rightly, lauds her as ‘surely the finest recorder of lives lived on the margins of a shabby and fading England.’
Quartet in Autumn is set in 1970s London, and follows a quartet of colleagues – Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia. All are in their sixties – their autumn years – and nearing retirement. They work in rather an anonymous office – it is never made quite clear what they do, and Pym mentions that once all four have retired, their department will be dissolved entirely – and are all contending with loneliness. Edwin describes the quartet as ‘Four people on the verge of retirement, each one of us living alone, and without any close relative near…’.
Each character has been fantastically drawn, which will not be a surprise for anyone familiar with Pym’s work. Each is complex and feels lifelike; they are both predictable and not. Marcia, for instance, is a rather crotchety and proud lady, who lives alone. She takes ‘every opportunity to find out what was due to her in the way of free bus travel, reduced and cheap meals, hairdressing and chiropody, although she never made use of the information.’ Her idea of an enjoyable holiday away from work is to visit the doctor’s surgery about her various ailments.
Edwin is a particular man, quite involved with his local church, who treats himself to a jelly baby as ‘the last course of his midday meal’. Letty is by far the most sociable of the four. She rents a small flat, where she lives with a fashionable and up-to-date wardrobe stuffed with garments, given her penchant for shopping at every given opportunity.
Norman is perhaps the character we get to know the least, but there are still some quite memorable details given about him. Pym writes, for instance: ‘Norman and Letty both felt the pull of the open air, Norman to take his mind off his teeth, and Letty because she had the slightly obsessive or cranky idea that one ought to get a walk of some kind each day.’
Marcia and Letty retire at the same time, and a drab party of sorts is thrown for them. Pym comments: ‘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.’ On her first day out of the office, Letty amusingly ‘still kept to her rules – one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty yeas ago.’
Quartet in Autumn is peppered with amusing scenes and memorable exchanges between the characters. There are quite a few tender moments too, and reflections on what it means to be ageing, and to be lonely. This novel feels particularly prescient to be reading during the current turmoil which the pandemic is leaving in its wake, when many older people are completely separated from family and friends. Pym is shrewd throughout, particularly when she writes about being alone at Christmastime.
Quartet in Autumn, the penultimate novel of Pym’s to be published during her lifetime, was a delight to sink into. I loved learning about the realistic and quite unusual protagonists, and their relationships with one another, as well as with peripheral characters. Quartet in Autumn is reflective and touching, just as it is memorable and witty. It is a marvellously balanced novel, which I would highly recommend.