(This edition from Bello books)
When I first read Quartet in Autumn I think I found it a little sad – veering towards depressing. Maybe this is the kind of book that one needs to be in the right frame of mind for. This time I found I really loved it. Although this novel does seem to be a bit different from other Barbara Pym novels, there are still plenty of Pymisms to be found. This was the novel that was published in 1977 after Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil had both separately and independently of each other, named Barbara Pym as the most under rated novelist. It was also the novel which found her nominated for the Booker Prize. There certainly is a more melancholic feeling to ‘Quartet in Autumn’ – focusing as it does, on four lonely people as they approach retirement from a dull unimportant office job.
“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times. The library assistant, if he had noticed them at all, would have seen them as people who belonged together in some way”
Edwin, Marcia Norman and Letty – work together in an unspecified office. They have worked together for a number of years – and although they are a similar age – they don’t socialise out of work or have any kind of personal relationship. Letty and Norman each live in bedsits – while Marcia and Edwin each live alone in what were family homes, Edwin in the home he shared with his wife, Marcia in the house she lived in with her parents. Edwin likes to visit churches in his lunch hour; Letty sometimes goes to the library. Marcia remembers with fond nostalgia her time in hospital, where she under- went ‘major surgery’ under the auspices of Mr Strong for whom she nurses tender feelings. In the shed in her over grown garden Marcia hoards empty milk bottles, just as she hoards tinned food – although barely eats anything. When Letty finds the house she lives in is sold to a new landlord, a pastor of an obscure African church, she is nervous of the noisy lively family he brings with him and with Edwin’s help re-locates to a new room in the home of octogenarian Mrs Pole.
Marcia and Letty retire before Edwin and Norman (remember the days when women retired five years earlier than men?) – and while Marcia and Letty need to adjust and find ways of filling their days, Edwin and Norman occasionally wonder how “the girls” are getting on. Marcia is annoyed by a medical social worker who keeps trying to call, while Letty settles into a new routine with Mrs Pole.
“In Mrs Pole’s house the telephone rang just as she and Letty were settling down to watch television. They quite often did this now, and although it had started by Mrs Pope suggesting that Letty might like to watch the news or some improving programme of cultural or scientific interest there was now hardly an evening when Letty did not come down to watch whatever happened to be on the box, whether it was worthy of attention or not.”
The story of these quiet sad, lonely people is not entirely dispiriting though, while Marcia becomes more obsessive and secretive – Letty at least shows she is able to remain positive and move forward in her life, even beginning to reach out a little to the people around her by the end of the novel.
A novel of four ageing lonely people who have out lived their usefulness – whose jobs, when they retire will not be re-filled – is understandably poignant, but it is also shot through with Barbara Pym’s sharp humour. In ‘Quartet in Autumn’ Barbara Pym seems in part to have been examining the fate of single elderly people, who is it that will look out for them? Whose responsibility is it to see that someone is taking the necessary care of themselves? The system (as Pym must have seen existing in the 1970’s) is seen to fail Marcia – who seems to slip through the social care net.
These characters who I once found so sad, spoke to me in a completely different way this time. Barbara Pym’s minute observations of people, are quite brilliant, the humour and pathos are handled deftly and saved this from being overwhelmingly sorrowful.