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Quartet in Autumn (1977)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,0264513,861 (4.05)1 / 274
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 1977 MAN BOOKER PRIZE"A spare masterpiece of loneliness in retirement" TelegraphIn 1970s London, Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem - loneliness. With delightful humour, Pym takes us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements; and, perhaps most keenly felt, their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them. Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym's sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain's most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.PRAISE FOR BARBARA PYM"Quartet in Autumn is immeasurably her finest work of fiction" Evening Standard"An alert miniaturist ... her novels have a distinctive flavour, as instantly recognisable as lapsang tea" Daily Telegraph… (more)
  1. 30
    Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Deals with the pathos of ageing.
  2. 10
    At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels present the problems of old age.
  3. 10
    A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Barbara Pym's diary shows how closely autobiographical this novel is.
  4. 00
    A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (LBV123)
    LBV123: Strangely affecting quiet book in which not much happens. How do we move on?
  5. 00
    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels present the problems of old age.
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Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
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 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 seems 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. ( )
  MikeFinnFiction | May 16, 2020 |
Pym's darkest novel, or perhaps "bleakest" is a better way of putting it. It's also, perhaps, her best. And this is odd because Quartet is rather unlike anything else Pym wrote. It has her needle-sharp accurate character portraits, her dry wit, her evocation of drab lives dully lived, but also its characters - deliberately - lack the sparkle that even her most grayest of characters cling to elsewhere. Written only a few years before her death, this is the kind of a novel only an older person can write, with its reflections on life, purpose, and meaninglessness. Thankfully, we can always sense the wry Pymian hand of the narrator behind the empty lives.

It's fantastic. It's probably the one Pym to read if you're not going to read any others (even though you won't get a sense of her high comedy canon!). And even at 32, I find myself wondering which of these sexagenarians I will be in retirement.

Grimly wonderful. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
Quartet in Autumn is about four co-workers in a nameless office in London. We never learn the business of the company does or what jobs the co-workers do. All are nearing retirement; indeed, the company is phasing out their department as they retire, because a computer could do their jobs. One is a widower; the others have never married.

For the first two-thirds I was depressed by the seeming purposelessness, or emptiness, of the lives under examination. Yet Pym's writing is so smooth and effortless that I kept reading . . . and I felt rewarded in the end. ( )
  NinieB | Dec 5, 2019 |
This was beautiful in a quirky quiet way. Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman work together in an office, doing a job that is of so little importance that when Letty and Marcia retire, they are not replaced, and when Edwin and Norma eventually retire, their work will be done by a computer.

Very little happens: Edwin goes to church, Marcia becomes stranger and stranger, Norman wonders about Marcia, and Letty's retirement plans are thrown into confusion when the friend she had planned to love with announces she is getting engaged.

It is hard to pin down what makes this book such a good read: there are humorous touches, but the overwhelming mood is one of sadness. ( )
1 vote pgchuis | Sep 7, 2018 |
One of the things I enjoy most is a novel which spends a great deal of time talking about literature. I have a few novels which listed dozens of books. I took a lot of ribbing from my book club at a meeting when I listed new 200 novels mentioned in the text. That is unusual, but it is common in literary fiction to have characters reading or discussing an actually published novel. I recently reviewed Paul Auster 4321, and while one character sent a list of 100 books Archie Ferguson “had to read.” Only a dozen or so were mentioned, and most of those I had read. However, one novel really caught my eye. I knew Barbara Pym as a recognized author, but I had never read anything by her. But when a character recommended Archie read, Quartet in Autumn, I sensed a need to read this story. Pym provided me with a clue, which helped untangle the web Auster had created.

Barbara Pym worked as an editor for an African scholarly journal. She picked up the habit of observing the passage of humanity. Her first book was published, and a couple after, but publishers declined to continue to sign her, because they saw her work as old fashioned. In 1977, an influential article in The Times Literary Supplement listed her as one of the most underrated novelists of the 20th Century. She then published a novel, Quartet in Autumn, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

4321 is a complex novel, and almost everything points to clues about the novel and its characters. Quartet in Autumn is the story of four people – Norman, Edwin, Letty, and Marcia – all work together in a room, but no one knows what they are doing. Even the head of the company joked at a retirement party, “Exactly what is it you do?” This detail is never revealed. The “quartet” are friendly and helpful towards each other, but, oddly enough, they never socialize after work, and they never visit with each other. The novel reminds me of Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. This story details an elderly and lonely man and woman who decide to spend some time together. A reader might characterize these two novels as “old-fashioned,” but I found Pym’s novel interesting and absorbing.

Letty was the first to retire. She had a friend, Marjorie, who lived in the country, and on a visit, she discovered that her friend was in love with a local Vicar and they were planning to wed. Marjorie half-heartedly offered to let her move in with the newly engaged couple. Pym writes, “Of course there was no question of her living at Holmhurst, a large red-brick mansion standing in wide lawns which she had often passed when she went to see Marjorie. She once noticed an old woman with a lost expression peering through one of the surrounding hedges and that impression had remained with her. When retirement day came, and it was not far off now, she would no doubt stay in her bed-sitting room for the time being. One could lead a very pleasant life in London—museums and art galleries, concerts and theatres—all those things that cultured people in the country were said to miss and crave for would be at Letty’s disposal. Of course, she would have to answer to Marjorie’s letter, to offer her congratulations (for surely that was the word) and to ease her conscience about the upsetting of the retirement plans, but not necessarily by return of post” (54-55).

Some might see Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym as “old fashioned,” but with my library firmly established in the 19th century, I feel quite at home, with a steaming cup of tea and some biscuits. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/9/17 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | Jan 6, 2018 |
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Pym, Barbaraprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.
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How had it come about that she, an English woman 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? 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. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. All those years wasted, looking for love! The thought of it was enough to bring about silence in the house and during the lull she plucked up the courage to go downstairs and tap — too timidly, she felt —at Mr Olatunde’s door. ‘I wonder if you could make a little less noise? she asked. ‘Some of us find it rather disturbing.’
‘Christianity is disturbing,’ said Mr Olatunde.
She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
Letty stood looking out at Holmhurst [retirement home] ... Three old ladies - an uncomfortable number, hinting at awkwardness - were walking slowly round the garden. There was nothing particularly remarkable about them except their remoteness from any kind of life.
Marcia went into the garden and picked her way over the long uncut grass into the shed where she kept milk bottles. These had to be checked from time to time and occasionally she even went as far as dusting them. Sometimes she would put one out for the milkman but she mustn't let the hoard get too low because if there was a national emergency ... there could well be a shortage of milk bottles.
So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place ... So Marcia took the bag upstairs into what had been the spare bedroom where she kept things like cardboard boxes, brown paper and string, and stuffed it into a drawer already bulging with other plastic bags ... Marcia spent a long time in the room, tidying and rearranging its contents. All the plastic bags needed to be taken out of the drawer and sorted into their different shapes and sizes, classified as it were.
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