Sunday 10 December 2017

Something in Their Lives: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of 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.
Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn (1977), ch. 1

A look at the subject matter of several novels of the time may suggest otherwise. But this was Barbara Pym's personal experience; it's a cri de coeur. Pym, writing Quartet in Autumn after years of rejection, saw little prospect of its being published. The novel has a recklessness: she's perhaps writing for herself alone, or for a coterie of fans such as Philip Larkin, who read and commented on the manuscript. The heartening and miraculous story of the novel's eventual publication, after Pym was celebrated in a TLS article, is well known. A Booker nomination followed, and the reissue of her 1950s novels, along with the release of several works that had failed to find a publisher in the meantime.

Quartet in Autumn is the story of four office workers near retirement, conventional Letty, eccentric Marcia, churchy Edwin, and chippy Norman. But '[T]he curious intimacy of the office is very definitely not repeated outside it,' comments Edwin at one point. All four are single; two of them live in bedsitters, and the question of their future in a changing world - 'all the uncaring intricate rented world', as Larkin called it - is approached head on. This isn't the cosy Pym of the Fifties:
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... (Ch. 7)
Not that this is a racist novel: the Nigerians are kind and dignified; it's Letty who's out of step. Pym charts the changing social scene, but her eye is equable, ironic. Any less than sympathetic comments are given to the less than sympathetic Norman, always on hand with a hackneyed expression, which Pym records with detectable though silent relish.

Pym guides the story towards a fairly traditional satisfactory conclusion, but there's no disguising the bleakness of much of what has gone before. Deprivation was to Larkin what daffodils were to Wordsworth, and the atmosphere is at times strongly Larkinian - the Larkin of High Windows in particular. A line from an earlier poem 'Ambulances' is directly quoted, and Letty wonders about the validity of being 'deprived', of 'not having'. As a reader of Anita Brookner, I wonder also about connections with this later author. Certainly the novel's anxieties about housing and property have echoes in some later Brookners, especially The Next Big Thing.

But Quartet in Autumn is a comic novel. High comedy - that's what Lord David Cecil called Pym's humour. I'm not sure this quite applies to Quartet in Autumn, but in spite of its darkness it's often very funny. Pymish comedy seems to have to do with accumulation, and with deadpan deftness of pacing. I don't mean just accumulation of telling detail but of language too:
By profession he was a driving examiner and his present stay in hospital was the result, not of an accident with a middle-aged woman driver on test, as was jokingly assumed in the ward, but of a duodenal ulcer brought about by the worrying nature of life in general, to which the anxieties of his job must surely have contributed. (Ch. 1)
Successive parts of this sentence modify and undermine the reader's response. We might take exception to the line about the middle-aged woman driver on test, but the next clause cuts this away, revealing the jokey sexism to be the ward's, not Pym's. The mention of the ulcer shocks us into a seriousness that's swiftly demolished by the prim faux-seriousness of 'the worrying nature of life in general'. The final clause acts as a pay-off, linking the sentence back to its beginning and satisfying the intelligent reader by confirming his or her initial suspicions.

By a similar token, Pym's darker moments are edged with humour:
Even Marcia had once hinted at something in her own life, long ago. No doubt everybody had once had something in their lives? Certainly it was the kind of thing people liked to imply, making one suspect that a good deal was being made out of almost nothing. (Ch. 4)
Wistful? Mocking? Bleak? The tone here is hard to catch, and this is the case time and again. It makes it a novel you can never quite 'get'. It's an ambiguity found in other Pyms, but mostly in the later ones. It's something that goes some way to explaining the Pym critical industry, now prodigious.

Another example: Marcia and her plastic bags:
The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read 'To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children'. From middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves. 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, conscientiously kept away from babies and children. It was a very long time since any such had entered the house, children not for many years, babies perhaps never. (Ch. 13)
The comedy builds slowly, grimly. Pym does not falter, steadily piling on the pressure, drawing out every last nuance, however dark.

I came to Barbara Pym's novels via Philip Larkin, and Quartet in Autumn, which I remember reading on a trip to Paris in the early 1990s, remains my favourite. The incomparable Larkin/Pym correspondence contains much discussion of the writing of the novel as it developed:
It would be wrong to say I enjoyed it in the simple sense of the word, because I found it strongly depressing, but I seem to recall some Greek explained how we can enjoy things that make us miserable. It's so strange to find the level good-humoured tender irony of your style unchanged but dealing with the awful end of life: I admire you enormously for tackling it, and for bringing it off so well.
Larkin to Pym, quoted in Hazel Holt's A Lot to Ask: a Life of Barbara Pym.

Old beloved Granada edition

My not quite complete Pym collection

The Brooknerian will now be taking a break. Back in the New Year. Thanks for reading!


  1. I adore Barbara Pym but I must admit I find 'Quartet' hard to enjoy. It is if course beautifully written, full of Pym's trademark observations of the little, telling, things that make up our lives. It's just so sad.

    My favourite Pym remains 'Excellent Women', which has the same sharp observation of life on the margins - Mildred's round of jumble sales, church services, being used by people like Rocky & Helena, and going home with half a loaf and a library book in a string bag - but ends with more optimism, and is very funny at times.

    I still haven't quite forgiven Persephone Press for refusing to re-publish Pym (their argument is that 'no-one changes' in her books, which I find wholly untrue). Luckily Virago has stepped in and produced a beautiful edition of EW - though I still have all my paperbacks too, and reread them often.

    Have a good break.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Rosemary. I like the Fifties Pyms too, but I find I have a bit of a prejudice in favour of authors' later works. But I've got fond memories of reading Crampton Hodnet and Some Tame Gazelle!

  3. Only just catching up with this after the 'holidays'. I'm so glad you have fond memories of those two - especially Some Tame Gazelle, another of my great favourites. I think anew biography came out quite recently, I must look it up.

  4. Me too. But Hazel Holt's original biog is still v. good., and one feels one knows her, since her appearance as herself in that early 90s BBC film, available on YouTube.


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