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Book review: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

It’s the mid-1970s, central London, and four people in their 60s, two men and two men, have been working together for two or three years in a small office doing a clerkish job of some sort.

Their building which also houses the organization for which they work and the room in which they work is within easy walking distance of the British Library and the British Museum, enabling a leisurely visit during a lunch hour.

As Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn opens, it is the library that each of the four, separately and at different times, has visited on this particular day.  Pym enables the reader to begin to get to know these four in a way that might happen in life, by employing the book’s first paragraph to describe their hair.

Edwin wore his, which was thin and greying and bald on top, in a sort of a bob…and the style was an easy one which Edwin considered not unbecoming to a man in his early sixties. 

Norman, on the other hand, had always had “difficult” hair, coarse, bristly and now iron-grey…[He] had adopted a medieval or pudding-basin style, rather like the American crew-cut of the forties and fifties.

Pym, still in that first paragraph, explains that the two women have hair “as different from each other as it was possible to imagine in the nineteen seventies” and goes on:

Letty had faded light brown hair, worn rather too long and in quality as soft and wispy as Edwin’s was…

Marcia’s short, stiff, lifeless hair was uncompromisingly dyed a harsh dark brown from a bottle in the bathroom cupboard, which she had used ever since she had noticed the first white hairs some thirty years earlier.

A dicey gamble

This may seem a less than promising way to start a novel, especially one published in 1977 when the bestseller lists were filled with such works as Trinity by Leon Uris, a sprawling saga of one family in a century of modern Irish history; The Chancellor Manuscript by Robert Ludlum, a thriller about secret files that J. Edgar Hoover had allegedly kept; and The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, a feminist novel about American women over a quarter of a century.

No one, especially given Pym’s opening paragraph, was likely to describe Quartet in Autumn as “explosive” or a “blockbuster” or one able to “spark a movement.”  That opening, also, was a particularly dicey gamble for someone in Pym’s situation.

Between 1950 and 1961, she had published six generally well-received novels — and, then, nothing.  She couldn’t get a publisher to consider her work again until she was nominated by both literary critic Lord David Cecil and the poet Philip Larkin as the most under-rated writer of the century.  That opened the door again, and Quartet in Autumn would, she hoped, be her comeback novel.

It was, many critics agree, her masterpiece.

The music of Austen’s language

As Quartet in Autumn moves to its second paragraph and then over the course of its 218 pages, Pym presents the four office mates as individuals and in their foursome.  She proceeds in a steady, deliberate — one might say, dignified — manner that reveals bits and pieces of their personalities, situations and yearnings in the course of her story. (Truth be told, however, there isn’t much plot here. That’s not Pym’s aim.)

As its title suggests, this novel is very much like a chamber music quartet, and also very much like the music of Jane Austen’s language, a writer with whom Pym is often likened,

The four office colleagues are:

  • Edwin Braithwaite, a widower and home-owner, who spends much of his free time attending services at his Catholic parish as well as at a myriad of other churches.
  • Letty Crowe, never married and living in a bed-sitter (a single room in someone else’s house), a woman who is taken for granted by her one close female friend and who has never found romance or looked for it very much.
  • Marcia Ivory, also never married, whose mother and favorite cat died in the home where she still lives and who is prickly about her privacy.
  • Norman, a lifelong bachelor, also in a bed-sitter, whose only relative is the remarried husband of his late sister. His last name never comes up.

Melancholic and light-hearted

Autumn is a melancholic season, and Pym’s novel is melancholic in tone but also, in its way, light-hearted and light-handed.  Her four characters, survivors of the unmentioned Depression and World War II, are resolute and self-contained, pensively taking each day as it comes. 

Nowhere does Pym indicate that any of the four has had an easy time of life.  And the sense pervades the novel that aging with its reminders of death’s approach is, for these four, another rough patch to undergo.

This, too, is an affectionate novel.  There are 21st century novels that are built around people whom the author seems to despise.  Not here.  Pym feels for these two men and two women with all their quirks, clogs, routines and reveries.

“Did you think…?”

Consider Marcia who, with her knotty nature, is perhaps the least attractive of the four.  (Again, truth be told, none of these people would be considered very attractive.  Pym isn’t writing a modern romance.)

She’s had an operation, and, so, the local community organization sends “a young woman, swinging a bunch of car keys in her hand,” to check on her.  Reluctantly, Marcia opens her door, and the reader experiences the visit from her point of view.

“Ah, Miss Ivory, isn’t it?  I’m Janice Brabner.”

She had a rather pink, open face.  Young women nowadays didn’t seem to bother much with make-up and even Marcia could see that some would have been improved by it.

“Some of us at the Centre have been worrying about the lonely ones.”

Could she really have prepared that sentence, for this is what came out.  Marcia gave her no encouragement.

“I mean the people who live alone.”

“Did you think I might be found dead?  Was that the idea?”

In this way, Pym pokes gentle fun at the neighborhood do-gooder.  Marcia, though, the reader has figured out by now, is more barbed in her humor, a grouch with leverage.

“She had coped”

A third of the way through the novel, Letty moves from one bed-sitter — where the new owner is a joyous Nigerian pastor who holds loud services — to another in the home of a woman over 80. 

It is a change in a life, like that of the other three, that is crimped and stalled by inertia.

Later, as she lay in bed, unable to sleep on her first night in a strange bed that would soon become as familiar as her own body, she realized that she had taken action, she had made the move, she had coped.

“Profoundly uneasy”

Quartet in Autumn is very much about coping.  It’s about coping in a messy way, the way that most of us cope with life — with indecision, with stabs in the dark and with more than a little confusion.

It is also about the thin but strong bonds that unite people in ways that aren’t always recognized, bonds of little-realized significance, bonds of what might easily — and rightly — be called love.

Halfway through the novel, the four are meeting for the first time for lunch:

Edwin, who was not particularly observant, did realize that [Marcia] was wearing an odd assortment of garments but did not think she looked much different from usual.

Norman thought, poor old girl, obviously going round the bend.

Letty, as a clothes-conscious woman, was appalled — that anyone could get to the stage of caring so little about her appearance, of not even noticing how she looked, made her profoundly uneasy and almost conscience-stricken, as if she ought to have done something…

Long haul

I’m pretty sure that nowhere in Quartet in Autumn does any one of the four refer to any of the others as a friend.

Yet, in the curious alchemy of human nature, they are friends.  And they do what friends do. 

And they feel for each other as friends, as fellow travelers in the long haul that is called life.

Patrick T. Reardon


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