I’ve never read Pym, but was more than happy to join in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas at My Porch, to help celebrate the centenary of her birth. I consulted my shelves and found four Pyms waiting for me – given that the week was well under-way already, I chose the shortest …
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
This was one of Pym’s last books, published in 1977 a few years before she died; it was nominated for the Booker Prize. She was in her sixties, and the quartet of main characters are also in or nearing that age – I sincerely hope that her own life didn’t mirror those of Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman.
The quartet all work together in an office in London, what they actually do is never specified. They all live alone in the London suburbs. Edwin is the only one who ever married, but is now a widower. He and Marcia both have houses; Letty and Norman both rent rooms. They spend more time with each other at work than anyone else, yet it is fair to say that they never really get to know each other. The office day ends and they all go off to their homes.
We never learn much about Norman’s home life, and Edwin is largely content to be a church tourist, but do we gradually get to know Letty and Marcia’s situations.
Letty had had plans to retire to the country to share a cottage with her old friend Marjorie, but that is scuppered when Marjorie falls for her local vicar. To make matters worse, Letty’s landlord sell up to a Nigerian priest, and reluctantly, she feels she has to move as the African priest and his brethren are too loud. Edwin finds her a room through his church, and she moves north of the river to share a house with the aged Mrs Pope.
Marcia goes home to her inherited house with its hoard of milk bottles in the shed and plastic bags neatly folded and sorted in upstairs drawers. Having had major surgery in the recent past, Janice from the local day centre is trying to keep an eye on her, but Marcia fends off her advances much to Janice’s frustration. The only person Marcia would like to get to know is her surgeon, whom she secretly idolises.
Letty and Marcia’s retirement arrives …
The organization where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working. Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate. …
The deputy assistant director stepped into the middle of the room and began to speak.
‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do,’ he declared boldly. ‘They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly doing good by stealth, as it were. …’
Both women are thus thrust into retirement limbo. One will drag herself up to realise that she still has a life to live, the other will turn inwards and dessicate – you can probably work out which will be which. It doesn’t stop Norman from saying ‘I wonder what the girls are doing now.’
With this novel, Pym was veering from her lighter fare into what would become Anita Brookner territory in the 1980s. Her vision of ageing spinsters alone in bedsitterland or in hiding from the real world is so sad and horribly real. It is not quite as bleak as Brookner though, for underneath is a little bit of humour à la Muriel Spark, dark and ironic.
What Pym did so wonderfully was to capture the vicissitudes of ordinary life in the 1970s for her women: those days when not everyone had a telephone, surviving on tinned food from the supermarket, and in particular, what to do with oneself when you don’t have a family support network. The men end up taking that supporting role, and they do help to give an overall balance to the novel with Norman’s flip remarks giving light relief, and Edwin’s well-meaning concern bringing us back to ground.
Although this was not comfortable reading, I enjoyed it a lot – probably falling between the works of Brookner and the best of Spark. I have another ten of Pym’s novels to look forward to, and it’ll be interesting to contrast her earlier lighter titles with this grim slice of 70s single life – however remember, it doesn’t end poorly for everyone… (8.5/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym