“Quartet in Autum” by Barbara Pym

Dispassionate to the point of discomfort, “Quartet In Autumn” is filled with strong insights unburdened by empathy

“Quartet in Autumn” follows the changing lives of four people who have worked in the same office for some years and who are now approaching retirement. The quartet is made up of two men and two women, although the focus is mainly on the women.

Based on reading Pym’s “Excellent Women” and “A Glass Of Blessings”, I’d expected a gentle, empathetic and ultimately hopeful look at the lives of mostly impoverished English lower-middle-class people, with splashes of humour and moments of annoyance at the unreasonable behaviour of men.

“Quartet In Autumn” isn’t that kind of book. It takes place in the 1970s rather than the 1950s and focuses on people who choices in life are narrowing as they approach retirement. The tone is one of quiet, mostly polite, desperation rather than hope.

The authorial voice is chillingly distant, moving from head to head amongst the four, like a camera in a reality TV Show, or the voice-over in a documentary on animals in a zoo. The result feels more like voyeurism than intimacy. Pym’s authorial voice is a constant subliminal whisper, with each episode in a person’s life dropping softly, like a handful of earth on a coffin, piling layer after layer of disappointment, self-denial, delusion and quiet unprotesting despair, until I felt interred in the lives of these women.

Perhaps I found “Quartet In Autumn” an uncomfortable read because I am at the same stage of my life as the quartet, my working life is almost behind me and what I do next is also probably what I will do last. I found that this made me increasingly impatient with the way these four people continued not to look at their lives in any way that would either acknowledge how they felt about where they were or make any deliberate changes. That seemed depressingly real to me.

I did not find myself cheering for any member of the quartet. I didn’t care what happened to the men. Of the two women, Letty came closest to someone I might care about. I identified with her difficulty in connecting with others. When I saw her taking a hurried, solitary lunch in a restaurant crowded with other solitary people in a hurry, I felt a moment of recognition. I’ve done this often and I have the same defensive habits as Letty so I felt sympathy with Letty’s reaction when as she is eating her meal, another solitary, unknown woman takes a seat at her table:

She looked up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale, bluish eyes troubled about VAT . Then, discouraged by Letty’s lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed. Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.

Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact.

As the book progress, my sense of recognition was replaced with a the question, “What happened to these people?”

Letty, the most vibrant of the bunch sees herself as an involuntary maiden, caught on a tide of history, part of a generation of women cheated by the war of their opportunity to meet and marry, as if she’d missed a bus and was now doomed to walk.

As Pym displayed Letty in successive chapters, I realised that the woman I first thought of as independent and self-aware, was broken, not in a fractured by trauma way but more in the way of someone whose hands are swollen and callused through habitual misuse. Her manners constrain her perceived ability to act. Her expectations are meagre and vague yet she lacks the will actively to pursue them. Part of Letty’s passivity or paralysis may come from her inability to understand the course her life has taken. She asks herself:

How had it come about that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?

The answer she gives herself denies her agency over her life in a way that she seem quite unaware of. She concludes:

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.

The way Letty thinks about her religious or spiritual life points to the heart of her inertia. When her new landlord asks her is she is a Christian lady:

Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say ‘yes’, for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that. How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity –a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?

I was left thinking that her “grey, formal, respectable” life felt like a shroud that she has donned too early.

Marcia, the other woman in the quartet is mentally ill, a condition either brought on by her mastectomy or worsened by it. Marcia’s damage is of the traumatic kind. I find being inside Marcia’s head disturbing. She has a strong will. Her behaviour is disciplined, she reaches logical conclusions, takes responsibility for her life and yet she is trapped by fears and anxieties that shape everything she sees.

Marcia has an obsession with keeping a supply of canned goods in her house and having a collection of milk bottles set aside against some unspecified future disaster.

This hit me harder than it should. My mother was eight-years-old when the blitz destroyed large sections of her city. She lived through times when food was either not available or closely rationed and when baths were filled at night in case there was no running water in the morning. She was not Marcia but throughout her life, she had a cupboard full of canned foods and a freezer full of meals “just in case”. Some things, usually the worst things, never leave you.

I find Marcia entirely believable and I really wish I didn’t.

With remarkable dispassion, Pym uses Marcia to show how, despite being visible to ex-colleagues, being monitored by a social worker and being under the care of a doctor, women like Marcia can lose all connection with the world and fade away and be forgotten. Here’s the social worker’s response to Marcia Ivory’s death.

Everything concerning Miss Ivory was settled with calm efficiency, without recriminations and certainly without tears, and that was a great relief.

The two men in the quartet, Edwin and Norman are so slightly drawn it is hard to know who they are except that they seem hollow men with low expectations that they still often fail to meet. Neither of them interested me. They seem to me to be platitudinous, speaking only the ritual words that those of us with marginal social skills through the enforced proximity of working in a shared office.

This can be seen in the way the men in the responses of the men in the office to Letty’s disclosure of unexpected and undesirable changes in her retirement plans and in her new landlord, a Nigerian priest in the Aladura Christian sect.

‘It never rains but it pours,” said Norman the next morning when Letty has told them in the office about the new development in her retirement plans. ‘First, your friend getting married and now this –whatever next? There’ll be a third thing, just you wait.’ 

‘Yes, troubles do tend to come in threes, or so people say,’ Edwin remarked. There was, of course, an undeniable interest and even unadmitted pleasure in the contemplation of other people’s misfortunes, and for a moment Edwin basked in this, shaking his head and speculating on what the third disaster might be. 

‘Don’t tell us you’re getting married too,’ said Norman jauntily. ‘That might be the third thing.’ 

Letty had to smile, as she was meant to, at such a fantastic suggestion. ‘No chance of that,’ she said.

The hurt inflicted by the unthinking use of these boiler-plate phrases goes unobserved by the men using them. To some extent, the hurt is created by Letty, who can neither deafen herself to the negative implications of what has been said nor free herself from the pattern of ritual responses

In the final chapter, Pym tries to open things out a little for the three remaining members of the quartet. Unlike Marcia, they are alive. They have choices. If they have the courage to take the right ones then they need not follow Marcia into fading away, isolated from the world. I was convinced. I’m not sure Pym was either. The main skill of these three seems to be a talent for just enough self-deception to get through the day.

It took me a couple of months to read this book, rather than the couple of days I’d expected. At first, that was because I found I could only eat this depressing meal a little at a time. Towards the end, when I better understood what Pym was doing, I found myself asking angrily, “Why am I being shown these things? What purpose does it serve?” it was too real to ignore and too bleak to enjoy. I felt as if I’d unintentionally bought a seat at a vivisection.

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