Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym – or at least one of her best and most memorable novels.

Central to the narrative are four colleagues – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in a London office, performing clerical duties of some sort (the exact name of the business or institution is never made clear). All four are in their sixties and fairly close to retirement. Letty and Marcia will leave first, the retirement age for women being lower than for men, with Edwin and Norman to follow in the fullness of time.

Letty – the most self-aware member of the group – is particularly conscious of how odd or antiquated they must seem to other people, especially the younger, more energetic office employees. While they don’t see or socialise with one another outside of work, each co-worker has their own individual habits and routines to fall back on. Letty enjoys reading and shopping, always making an effort with her clothes to maintain a neat appearance, even though she is a spinster. Edwin – a widower – has various church activities to keep him occupied, helping Father G. with his parish near Clapham Common. Norman – unmarried and living in a bedsit – seems fixated on getting angry with various things: the youth of today, people who drop litter, semi-nudity in public places, and cars, especially badly parked ones.

Finally, Marcia – the most troubled of the quartet – spends much of her time buying tinned food which she never seems to eat; collecting empty milk bottles, which she stores in the garden shed, ready for some unspecified emergency; and avoiding Janice Brabner, a rather persistent volunteer from Social Services. Marcia, who is still under the care of the local hospital following a mastectomy, resents Janice’s interference in her life and wishes she could be left alone. But instead, Janice persists in trying to encourage Marcia to get out more, preferably dropping in at the local Centre, much to the latter’s annoyance. Also of concern to Janice is her charge’s diet, which she considers lacking in fresh food, especially given Marcia’s reliance on tinned goods, cups of tea and biscuits. It’s an ongoing source of tension that builds steadily during the book.

As the novel unfolds, we learn a little more about these four individuals through various glimpses of their lives, especially away from work. With her middle-class upbringing and training in secretarial duties, Letty had expected to marry in her youth; but instead, she was left behind, trailing in the wake of her best friend, Marjorie, who proved more popular with men. Now Letty lives in a bedsit, owned by an elderly lady, who may also be on the cusp of retirement herself. Nevertheless, while Letty regrets not having married, she still believes that her life has value to it, albeit in a somewhat different, less complicated way than her peers.

Yet, she sometimes wondered, might not the experience of ‘not having’ be regarded as something with its own validity? (p. 21)

At one point in the past, Marcia had entertained vague thoughts of Norman as someone she might become attached to, but now she seems more interested in Mr Strong, the surgeon who performed her mastectomy. Naturally, Mr Strong is blissfully unaware of this, but it doesn’t stop Marcia from looking forward to her appointments with him.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have taken place in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

Change is also the cause of some distress to Letty, who finds life uncomfortable with her new landlord, a Nigerian man named Mr Olatunde. With their enthusiastic hymn-singing and penchant for spicy food, the Olatunde family prove too much for Letty to cope with, given her preference for peace and quiet. Once again, Letty reflects on her position as an unassuming spinster, left on the shelf having missed out on marriage – something that chimes with Pym’s portrayals of other self-effacing heroines, such as Mildred from Excellent Women and Belinda from Some Tame Gazelle.

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. (p. 56)

There are elements of Pym herself in the character of Letty – and possibly a dash in Marcia too with her slide into neglectfulness.  Perhaps Pym is showing us how things might have worked out for her too, had she not been rescued from obscurity by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil?

This feeling of obsolescence is also present in other aspects of the novel – for example, how quickly we can be made to feel forgotten or superfluous to requirements when we retire or times move on. Letty feels it when she visits Edwin and Norman at the office, noticing how things have changed since her retirement.

‘I see you’ve spread yourselves out a bit,’ she said, noticing that the men now seemed to occupy all the space but had once accommodated the four of them. Again she experienced the feeling of nothingness, when it was borne in on her so forcibly that she and Marcia had been phased out in this way, as if they had never existed. (p. 110)

While Quartet is a somewhat melancholy novel – certainly compared to Pym’s earlier work – there are some lovely moments of gentle humour to balance the darkness. In this scene, Letty is visiting her friend Marjorie – now engaged to David Lydell, a middle-aged vicar who seems to have caught the eye of more than one lady in Marjorie’s village.

‘This is one of Father Lydell’s favourite dishes,’ said Beth, bringing a covered casserole to the table.  ‘Poulet niçoise – I hope you like it.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Letty murmured, remembering the times she had eaten poulet niçoise at Marjorie’s house. Had David Lydell gone all round the village sampling the cooking of the unattached women before deciding which one to settle with? Certainly the dish they were eating this evening was well up to standard. (p. 130)

As is often the case with Pym, it’s the small things that prove to be the most revealing, hinting at trouble brewing or secrets yet to be revealed. As the novel draws to a close, the group come together in a time of crisis, reaching out to one another in ways they have not managed to do before. For two of the quartet at least, there are decisions about their futures to be made, showing us that life still holds choices and new possibilities in the autumn of our years. This is a beautiful, perceptive, bittersweet novel, reminiscent of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (and possibly Memento Mori) in subject matter and style.

45 thoughts on “Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

  1. inthemistandrain

    I’ve read it a few times, most recently last summer when I re-read all of Barbara Pym’s novels. I enjoy and admire all her novels, this seems untypical of them and yet is my favourite. It would have been fascinating to watch her work continue and develop – sad that she wasn’t around to write more. A loss to us I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I would love to have seen more from her in the post-wilderness years. There’s such a poignancy to this novel, a sadness that seems deeply felt. I wonder whether she would have written such a melancholy novel, had she not experienced her own sense of ‘redundancy’ with the rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment (a novel I still need to read)?

      Reply
  2. jamclean2018

    Thank you, Jacqui, for this post. You always bring interesting books and authors to your site. I couldn’t agree more about Barbara Pym and Quartet in Autumn. This is a wonderful writing. Pym is a great stylist, not a minimalist (thank Heavens!) but never extravagant either. When I first read Quartet in Autumn in my 20s I loved the droll humour. It was as if we were observing the 4 as nondescript but nevertheless fascinating animals–and Pym overtly describes them this way at times. Their daily habits were intriguing to me. It was almost as if their odd little lives were something to aspire to, the frumpy comfort of living alone and holding down a middling job. I have just re-read Quartet a couple of weeks ago. Now that I’m in my 50s and have seen plenty of illness and decline, the sadness of the story comes out more: the failure to make true connections and the lack of understanding and compassion. It’s interesting to read again books we read in our youth and see what has changed. I also enjoyed A Glass of Blessings, the story of one of those “suburban wives” that Letty wonders about. It is less somber than Quartet but just as perceptive and witty.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome, and I’m so delighted to hear that you find my reviews interesting. They take quite a while to write, so it’s lovely to have some appreciative feedback every now and again. Many thanks for that – it really does make all the difference!

      Your comments about reading this novel again in your fifties really chime with me. I’m in my late fifties, and revisiting it now (having lived through the turmoil and isolation of the pandemic) makes it feel all the more poignant and resonant. These books speak differently to us as we age and develop; they change with us, revealing new facets and insights with each subsequent read. The failure to reach out and make connections really came through to me this time, especially in Marcia’s storyline, so thank you for bringing that out. Lovely to hear that you enjoyed A Glass of Blessings so much, too; that’s one of Pym’s novels I’ve yet to read!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely. It’s the saddest of the Pym novels I’ve read to date, although The Sweet Dove Died may well be in a similar vein. I’ve yet to read that, but it sounds somewhat different from her early, more humorous books.

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    Definitely the saddest of her novels. I read it a long time ago, when I was probably too young to feel its nuances more acutely. You’ve made me want to reread it with your great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m sure it would seem like a different novel novel to you now, especially if it’s more than 20 years since you last read it. I had this experience with Brooker’s Hotel du Lac, which didn’t speak to me at all in my early twenties but hit much harder in my mid-late fifties. I’d love to hear what you think of the Pym now…

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    I agree it’s a masterpiece, however I find it too sad to reread. I’m the same with Anita Brookner’s later books, although I think I can read about ageing in general (can I? Hm).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny – I just mentioned Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac in my reply to Marina above! I get your reluctance to re-read this, I really do. It’s tough to read about the challenges of ageing, especially given the recent pandemic when so many of us have experienced loss, isolation and ‘redundancy’ in one form or another…

      Reply
  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Wonderful review as always (so nice to start my day with a perceptive review of a great book by a favorite author)! My comments really echo many of the ones I’ve just read, i.e., I read Quartet when I was relatively young; dismissed it (too, too depressing); read it again over two decades later and thought it one of Pym’s very best. Your review makes me want to read it again!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, that’s really lovely to hear! I find it fascinating, the way we see different things in certain books when we read them at different points in our lives. Mostly a function of age and life experience, I guess, but there may well be other things in the mix (e.g. our frame of mind or mood when we pick it up, irrespective of life stage or age).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get it, I really do. Some books cut too close to the bone, especially as we age. That said, I do think the humour adds a degree of balance here, a counterweight to some of the sadness, I guess.

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    This is my favourite Pym–very different from the rest as you point out. I’ve read it several times. IMO it’s a cautionary tale about aging and retirement. Funny that the characters who are the best off financially seem to be the worst off mentally.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s such a good point! I kept having to remind myself that Marcia was living in the house, not the awkward bedsit. Although the fact that she was on her own (and not sharing a building with other tenants) probably added to her isolation. And Norman had his own problems too, another lonely soul who could have fallen through the cracks. A cautionary tale indeed…

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I haven’t re read Pym since I discovered and devoured her in my 20’s, but I think I must put that right. I’ll be reading completely different books now I know, and will cherish them all the more for that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m sure you’d find them very different now, especially this one. I couldn’t help but think of Ozu and his contemporaries as I was reading it, nudged perhaps by your list of films!

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui, and I’m so interested that you find this to be your favourite Pym! It’s one I never read, as I ran out of steam in my attempt at a year-long one a month project with them – if I’m honest they became too similar for me, and I abandoned them. But I rather wish I’d had a go at this one, as it sounds obviously a little bleaker than her others although maybe with more depth. Though as someone edging close to retirement age, I might find it a little too painful!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I still think you should read it, despite the rather sensitive subject matter! It’s definitely channelling a different vibe/tone to her earlier novels, but there are some lovely notes of humour here too – enough to balance some (if not all) of the poignancy.

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    A wonderful review of a little masterpiece. It was after my second reading of this that I properly appreciated how brilliant it is. Marcia and her milk bottles must be the most memorable of Pym’s characters. This is definitely my favourite of Pym’s novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali! Poor Marcia – she cuts such a tragic figure with her stores of unopened tinned food and those empty milk bottles in the shed. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Jean Rhys story as I was reading it. The title of it escapes me now (Sleep It Off, Lady?), but I think it’s one of her later pieces – about an elderly lady living on her own who comes a cropper in her garden. I’ll have to do a bit of digging to seek it out…

      Reply
  10. Julé Cunningham

    An insightful and thoughtful review Jacqui. I find posts about books that are so well-known and much-written about the most difficult to do. I read the book at a later age than many here have and was struck by the four and how their perceptions changed. Pym wrote about the fear that often accompanies change and how the uncertainty of life seems a bit more obvious as we get older so well. Yet, there are those touches of humor!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really well put, Jule. Change can be frightening, especially as we get older and life moves on without us. I like the way Pym draws our attention to the different ways of dealing with retirement. While Letty adopts a more positive, proactive approach to filling her days, Marcia seems to retreat, becoming all the more isolated and idiosyncratic without the structure of work…

      Reply
  11. Danielle S.

    This is definitely one of her more melancholy stories and it has a different feel from her other work, but it is one of my favorites by her. Maybe it is my age, but I found it very relatable and real. I wish there were more books like this one. I think I need to revisit it and her other work, too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Likewise! I wish she could have lived a little longer and maybe written a few more books like this. It’s so thoughtful and poignant and beautifully observed. Not a word wasted or out of place.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Grier

    I’ve found this book incredibly sad, particularly Marcias’s story, but agree that is a masterpiece and her most memorable novel. I do like books about aging and about spinsters but this one just about did me in!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does pack an emotional punch, for sure. I felt that more acutely this time around, especially after the sense of isolation and ‘redundancy’ many of us experienced during the first part of the pandemic…

      Reply
  14. BookerTalk

    A wonderfully thoughtful review of a wonderful novel. You’ve made me think about re-reading this again; it’s one of those novels that I think sustains multiple readings.

    Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        The sadness of her life was very subtly hidden wasn’t it behind the humour of her habit of collecting milk bottles and imagining conversations with her consultant.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, you’re right. I found both of those aspects of her character very sad, yet also entirely believable. That’s what makes it so poignant, the sense that it could quite easily happen in real life…

          Reply
  15. Marcie McCauley

    Love this! This is the one I’ve read most often too. It’s just so delicately assembled. And I agree that, in thinking on it and writing about it, it seems to be more sombre than it is on the page, even though she does allow the sorrowful parts their place.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting how darker it seemed on my second reading, only 4 or 5 years on. I’ve been wondering if this is partly a function of the shifts in our perceptions prompted by the pandemic, possibly making us more conscious of the damaging effects of isolation, especially on our mental health?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi! This was a re-read for me, and if anything it felt all the more poignant second time around. I agree, the characters as really memorable, especially the women.

      Reply

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