Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

After discovering Barbara Pym earlier this year, I went on a mini Pym binge and read several of her books in quick succession – Excellent Women, No Fond Return of Love and Jane and Prudence. Then I jumped ahead and read her “come-back” novel, Quartet in Autumn, which is markedly different from those earlier books. In those earlier works, Pym is often laugh-out-loud funny. Although many of her characters are lonely, they are almost always able to take an ironic stance toward that loneliness, which lightens it – at least for the reader.

However, Quartet in Autumn, although it has some traces of humor, is a thoroughly serious book. I’d even go so far as to consider this short novel a quiet tragedy. Much of Pym’s usual preoccupations are present, including unmarried men and women and clerical life, but she isn’t teasing anyone with these ideas. The focus of her revelatory concern goes beyond these smaller social issues; she exposes the very nature of loneliness.

Quartet in Autumn is about four office colleagues – Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman – and their respective solitary lives. Much of what Pym describes is heartbreaking. Marcia storing up empty milk bottles and canned food, Letty listening to the radio alone in her room in the evening, an angry Norman watching young people play in a park at lunch, and Edwin’s cultivated obliviousness. These four individuals are horribly, horribly lonely, but so stuck in their mode of living that they are unwilling to do anything that might rumple the surface of that loneliness. Each time an offer comes about (and there are several throughout the book) that might somehow decrease someone’s isolation, it is always immediately rejected.

Pym has an incredible eye for character differentiation. With a less careful writer, these four people could all start to resemble one another because, at least on the surface, they really do all have a lot in common. But no, Marcia and Letty are so different they can hardly speak to one another and Edwin and Norman also sit on different ends of the “old bachelor” spectrum. Watching these four interact, first at the office and then later after Marcia and Letty have retired, is somewhat funny at its lightest, but quite painful at its worst.

I must say that one of the things I find curious about Pym is her complete and utter lack of sensuality. These four people are lonely, yes, but she doesn’t really push their loneliness outside of an intellectual representation. How do I put this? There is never much concern for the physical reality of being lonely. The issue of never being touched for a person who lives alone is mentioned once, via another character, a social worker who checks on Marcia actually, but Pym never allows her actual characters to express themselves through this filter. What is remarkable to me is that Pym is so effective at conveying the loneliness of her characters without really resorting to an investigation of their physical loneliness.

Although, having said that, one of the characters in this novel, Marcia, manifests her loneliness through anorexia, which could be considered a physical representation. Yet this is also about control, about denying the physical. So it’s almost an extreme version of what I just said above.

Quartet in Autumn has a typically Pym-like ambiguous and perhaps frustrating ending. A possible reprieve from loneliness is again on offer, but Pym doesn’t tell the reader whether it will come to anything.

I am not usually very interested in the life of a writer – I prefer to take the whole of their work and let that sit with me – but the trajectory of Pym’s writing career intrigues me, especially the forced 13 year hiatus she took because no one was interested in publishing her after she’d finished her sixth novel. She was resurrected apparently because two prominent male writers championed her work. I’m curious how she managed those 13 years – I know that she continued to write because what she wrote was eventually published. Her diaries are published as A Very Private Eye and there is a biography of her by Hazel Holt called A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym.

Has anyone read either? Thoughts?

7 Responses to “Barbara Pym – Quartet in Autumn”

  1. Stefanie

    How interesting that Quartet is so different from here earlier work! I wonder what her books following this one are like? I’ve only read the early ones so now I am very curious. Haven’t read he diary or the bio, but I’ve now added them both to my library wishlist!

    • Michelle

      I’m curious to read her other later works as well, especially since several of them were written during her “break” but only published later – I suppose I should just read her start to finish and have it done with! 🙂

  2. litlove

    I haven’t read Quartet in Autumn because I do so love Pym’s humour, and I’m wary of how I will feel to read something so serious by her. Normally that issue of loneliness is always apparent in her works but the witty writing makes it bearable. But, as you say, her characterisation is worth reading for alone. I haven’t actually read a biography of her life, although I know the outline. I’d be very intrigued to know what you thought of one.

    • Michelle

      I’m intrigued enough by Pym at the moment to launch myself into a start-to-finish read – might be a very good project for the summer. I think what I like the most about her is how readable she is – each book isn’t difficult at all, really, but leaves much to think about. And I’ll definitely pick a biography!

  3. Lilian Nattel

    I’d like to read your start to finish on her. She fascinates me, but I’ve got so much reading on the go I won’t be able to read any more by her for a while.

    • Michelle

      I’m hoping to start in June – she’ll be good for summer reading. And I’ve already read several, so just need to fill in the holes!

  4. Rebecca H.

    I need to get back to Pym; I have probably four unread novels of hers lying around. I’ve only read Excellent Women and An Academic Question, the latter of which was a mistake, because it’s an unfinished novel. Probably Jane and Prudence will be next. I know nothing about her biography beyond that 13-year hiatus; it would be great to know more.

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