Tag Archives: Comfort reading

A Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, A 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.

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.

The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.

A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)

The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.

At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.

It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.

The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)

It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.

In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt. 

In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.

Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)

Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.

Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.

Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history. 

Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.