By her later novels, Barbara Pym had become less funny and
more melancholy. Quartet in Autumn
features two women and two men who are nearing retirement from menial
office jobs in London. They all live alone. Edwin is a widower; Norman,
Letty, and Marcia never married.
Their lives are isolated and restricted. Marcia is odd and hostile. Norman is suspicious and bristly, his only connection a brother-in-law he dislikes. The milder Letty is unsettled after plans to share a cottage with a lifelong friend fall through. Edwin at least has the church, which consumes his out-of-work time.
They have worked together for years yet aren’t friends. After the two women retire first, getting together socially is an awkward duty more than a pleasure.
Quartet in Autumn is a poignant look at aging and isolation but not overly depressing because Pym is never judgmental toward her characters. Only Marcia, who hoards empty milk bottles and tins of food she doesn’t open, might be seen as pitiful. She slips through the social-care net, and one might wonder whether the system failed her, even though she refused a social worker’s overtures.
The other three carry on. When Norman decides not to live in the house Marcia leaves him, and Letty hesitates when her friend wants to share her home after all, they realize that reduced lives still have choices. The last words of the novel are
“ . . . life still held infinite possibilities for change.”
Quartet in Autumn was Pym’s first publication after 17 years of publisher rejections when her comedies of manners were deemed out of style. It was praised by critics and shortlisted for Britain’s Booker Prize.
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