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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym [review]

Quartet-in-autumn

Barbara Pym and the novel that revitalised her career

Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of  office life in 1970s London.

Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.

Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times,  ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure,  occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.

And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.

The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.

At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:

”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”

As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

Footnotes 

The Book:  Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977  the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work  Within a month, Macmillan  accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Author:  Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’  Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barbara Pym there’s a good review of her work in The Guardian, written by Alexander McCall Smith, or visit the website of the Barbara Pym Society.

Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle. 

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Barbara Pym. But I’m glad that I have even if I’m a latecomer to the party. Some Tame Gazelle was her debut novel.  In it she features characters based on people within her own circle of friends and acquaintances but imagines how their lives could be twenty or thirty years’ time.

some tame gazelleThe two ‘gazelles’ are the middle-aged spinster sisters  Belinda and Harriet Bede. Belinda is the more intelligent one having taken a degree in literature. She’s long harboured a passion for the Archdeacon who lives in the village, being almost the only one who can tolerate his obscure sermons and propensity to regale  everyone with his literary knowledge.  Harriet has looks instead of grey cells but though her beauty has faded she is still the subject of repeated marriage proposals of an Italian count who lives locally.  Instead she takes a fancy to every new curate who passes her way.

A smart and floridly handsome admirer in the Prime of Life would be much more acceptable to her than a husband of the same description. In her girlhood imaginings, Harriet had always visualised a tall, pale man for her husband, hence her partiality forthe clergy. ……. Who would exchange a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?

During the course of the book, both sisters reject proposals which would have taken them into the unknown world of marriage. They do so partly because they are not attracted to these men, but also because they are settled in their lives together and view marriage as a disturbance of that equilibrium.

Pym shines at portraying daily life in an English village of the 1950s with all its peculiarities  and minor concerns. The mending of stays, the correct way to turn the heel of a sock; what to serve guests for lunch: these are the daily dilemmas of  Harriet and Belinda.

Were all new curates always given boiled chicken when they came to supper for the first time? Belinda wondered. It was certainly an established ritual at their house and it seemed somehow right for the new curate. The coldness, the whiteness, the muffling with the sauce, perhaps even the sharpness added by the slices of lemon, there was something appropriate here even if Belinda could not see exactly what it was.

As amusing as these glimpses are of a world full of such small pains and pleasures,  there is a sadness surrounding Pym’s leading ladies.  With their faded hopes and lost dreams, these are gazelles who have lost a little of their spring but have found other compensations in life.

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