8 October 2021

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

A book with the word 'Autumn' in the title simply begs to be read during this time of year.  Which isn't to say the topic has anything to do with seasonal delights, this is a story about four people in their sixties on the brink of retirement and what lies ahead.

Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin work in an office (my guess is somewhere in Holburn) but their desks are moving closer to the exit, so to speak.  In the workplace, they're already on their way to being irrelevant.  In fact, we never discover the company name or what it is they do.  It's more a case of gathering around the tea/coffee station and tidying up desks.   Grouped together they form something of a work family but there is a fairly solid line no one is willing to cross.  Pym hones in on the social dance of making sure people know they are cared for - but keep your distance.

All four main characters are single....Letty was renting a room in a home recently bought by a Nigerian priest who hosts festive gatherings featuring regional dishes.  Sadly, it's all beyond Letty's traditional English ways.  Through his involvement in the church, Edwin matches her up with Mrs Pope, an elderly woman who thought the company would be nice.  She can't resist a snoop at the first opportunity, though...

   The first thing that struck Mrs Pope was tidiness and order.  This was a slight disappointment for she had hoped to find interesting things lying about in the room.  Naturally she would expect somebody recommended by Mr Braithwaite - she did not think of him as 'Edwin' - to be respectable, even a churchwoman, but she was surprised to find that there was no devotional book on the bedside table, not even a Bible, just a novel from the Camden library.  Mrs Pope would have respected a biography but she was not interested in novels......

 Norman lives in a tiny bedsit in Kilburn Park, and Marcia owns a semi-detached house with a garden growing wilder by the day.  

Marcia is a tragic figure in this story.  Having gone through a diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy she thinks of her follow-up visits to the hospital as outings.  She is quite taken with her surgeon, Dr Strong while her support worker Janice is considered a nuisance.  Marcia hoards tins of food, compulsively stores used milk bottles and keeps a stash of new nighties....because you never know.    

Norman frequents the British Museum and the library, Edwin lives for the next church service and Letty has her friend's love life to brood over.  Marjorie was looking forward to having Letty as a companion in her country cottage until a new vicar shows up in the village and her head is turned.  

The concern Norman, Edwin and Letty have for Marcia brings them together with the realization that, for better or worse, relationships and the intrusions that go with them, are necessary.  Being alone doesn't necessarily equate with loneliness but our lives are richer for having others to lean on during difficult times.

When I bought this book it was to support an independent bookseller in my community; you can't go wrong with a Barbara Pym novel.  I had no idea what Quartet in Autumn was about but happily, my choice turned out to be a very good one.   

Published in 1977 Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith