Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn

I felt there was something forced about this new edition of Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn. I’m a sucker for reissued ‘modern classics’, but there seemed something a touch in-your-face about writing the words PAN CLASSICS FOR A NEW GENERATION across the middle of the front cover. A quote from Jilly Cooper promising “gentle pleasure” was not quite an added incentive. But it had been recommended by people I trust, so I snapped it up anyway.

Quartet in Autumn

Pym’s own story is worth going into briefly. Her books lost popularity in the early 1960s, and although she continued to write, she couldn’t get published. But when the Times Literary Supplement, in the mid-1970s, canvassed the great and the good on the most underrated authors of the past 75 years, Pym’s was the only name which came up twice. Her literary rehabilitation had begun, and culminated in the publication of this, her ‘comeback’ novel, in 1977. On reflection, that the two who nominated her in the TLS were Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, might have warned me that this could be a dated and twee read.

It sort of is. There’s nothing dramatically bold about Quartet in Autumn, no notable style, and although it’s set in 1970s London it has the air of an earlier age. Yet there is a steeliness to its satire, and teeth behind the smiles. The quartet in question are Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, colleagues who are nearing retirement and wondering how they might fill the voids in their lives that work will leave. When Letty and Marcia’s farewell lunch comes (“their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party”), the acting assistant deputy director manages to conceal in the valedictory speech the fact that nobody really knew what work they did, and that nobody had been needed to take their places:

‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do. They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly, doing good by stealth, as it were. … We shall miss them very much, so much so that nobody has been found to replace them…’

But it’s this gentle wit that gives the book its appeal: quietness is its quality. Which is not to say that it’s without edge. The theme of people, who did jobs that were never terribly stimulating in the first place, left dangling with nothing to fill their days with “eternity stretching before” them, is disturbing and at times quite terrifying. Pym has sympathy with her characters, but is not above swiping at their vanities and lack of self-awareness, and the idea that it is never too late to seize the day comes through loud and clear as Marcia in particular allows retirement to dissolve her.

What Quartet in Autumn reminded me of most was Penelope Fitzgerald, who (in my limited experience) has a similar softly-softly approach disguising a significant literary intelligence. Or it might just be that the covers are so alike.


  1. I’m one of those unfortunates completely taken in by the “softly-softly approach” of Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, and several other wondeful English writers such as Angela Huth, Muriel Spark, and Mary Wesley.

  2. Hi Tony, the Muriel Spark comparison did occur to me as I was reading Quartet in Autumn, but I feel Spark has a bit more – what’s the word? – spikiness to her than Pym or Fitzgerald, particularly in something like The Driver’s Seat.

  3. Hi John,
    Can one imagine anyone more spiky than Phillip Larkin, and he was an advocate of Barbara Pym? I forgot to mention Elizabeth Taylor who is beyond comparison as an English writer, yet her books had such innocuous titles as “Angel”, “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont”, “Blushing”, “The Wedding Group”, etc. All of the writers I mentioned are worthy descendants of Jane Austen. Not that I automatically categorize all woman writers in England as great wirters. I’m no fan of Iris Murdoch, and not particularly taken with Doris Lessing.

  4. Ah yes, I read an Elizabeth Taylor last year – and felt broadly the same about her as I did about Fitzgerald and Pym! I’ve heard the comparison of Pym to Austen before, but to my shame I’ve read only Pride & Prejudice and to be honest can’t remember much about that…

    Larkin of course was very spiky indeed, both in his poetry and in life. It’s only because he also had a reputation for being rather socially conservative that made me (prejudicially) link his name with something ‘therefore’ being dated and twee. Lord David Cecil I had never heard of before reading about Pym, but his name sounds almost like a comic stereotype of old-fashioned fustiness, so I admit I’m definitely in the realm of impressions here rather than facts.

  5. These women probably didn’t get married due to the shortage of men after WWII and had to keep working.

    How sad that the general director said that he wasn’t going have anyone else fill in their jobs and that he had now idea what they did.

    But, there are clueless and tactless managers like him in real life.

  6. When I retire, I won’t have their problem. I know I want to do and there will probably be new activities being invented when the time comes. Maybe I can take a vacation in space??

  7. Anita Brookner is often comparted to Pym, but — from the little Pym I’ve read — I don’t see it. Brookner is actually quite an angry and bitter writer — its why I like her!

    With Muriel Spark, her respect for Modernism and her moral seriousness which non-too slyly lurks is what marks her out …

  8. I agree Mark – I’ve read most of Spark’s books over the years and she’s a remarkable writer, and much less ‘reader-friendly’ (if that doesn’t sound like an insult) than Taylor, Pym et al seem to me. I keep meaning to try some Brookner; she has such a reputation as a middling Hampstead novelist that I am simultaneously put off and all the keener to try her and see! I have this optimistic fantasy that she will be a sort of McGrath/Ishiguro type novelist, full of unreliable restrained narrators…

  9. I haven’t read this one, but I really liked Pym’s ‘Excellent Women’, and am keen to read more. Penelope Fitzgerald is more wide-ranging in her worldview, but I ken definitely see similarities. You’re spot-on about Muriel Spark–she’s much nastier (in a fun-to-read way) than the other writers discussed here.

    I don’t know that you’re missing out on much with Brookner. Her ‘best’, ‘Hotel du Lac’, was so-so, and all the others basically seem to repeat the same book with small variations. Stick with Patricia Highsmith for that unreliable, restrained thing…

  10. Thanks for dropping by, JRSM. Oh yes, I am a recent convert to Highsmith, whose books have been reissued in the UK over the last few years in nice retro covers by Bloomsbury. Sadly the latest three – A Game for the Living, Found in the Street and People Who Knock on the Door – which were supposed to be published in Oct 07, have now been put back to Oct 08 and 09! And naturally I can’t bring myself to read older copies with horrible covers…

  11. Critics give Pym a pat on the head and relegate her to the lukewarm category of tea & toast fiction populated exclusively by church busybodies, yet her view is actually vast. She is equally adept at male characters (and their views of female foibles), academics, office politics, London or village life, the flux of time, the infinite family dynamics of marriage and parenthood, and love. The larger world insistently crowds in on yesterday’s England via immigrants, visitors, or foreign travel, and the long arm of History reaches out from the local manor house, or much older ruins, or remembered lines of verse. Though less relevant today, her explorations of religion, and class, and her marking of their waning influence in a changing era, add extra layers of depth not necessarily found in similar “gentle” writers’ work. You could say she’s muted, small-scale, interior; or you could say she’s Vermeer.

  12. Thanks for this intelligent and generous response, BoT (or can I call you Band?). I read a Muriel Spark recently – she was mentioned above – and must admit I am still more attracted to her world than to Pym’s, though I can claim no particular personal (generational, cultural) link to either. It seems to be widely held, at least so far as I’ve seen, that Quartet in Autumn is Pym’s best. Would you disagree, or at least are there others you would recommend?

  13. You haven’t read ALL of Jane Austen many times and can barely remember P and P? No wonder you don’t dig Pym. I found Quartet especially to be deeply moving and no, I’m not ancient. Band of Thebes is right – Vermeer is a good comparison.

    And some of “these women” didn’t get married because marriage just isn’t for everyone. If you read enough Pym, BTW, you’ll discover that many of the characters resurface in her books and yes, they find love and interesting lives, even marriage. In fact Mildred does. She marries that cool anthopologist.

    The evolution of her entourage is pretty darn interesting.

  14. Thanks for your comments eva. OK, so I know I really must read more Austen (multiple times!) – though I do feel a little like early readers of Ulysses who were told by Joyce that to properly experience it, first they must read The Odyssey

    I love your Richter Scale paintings by the way. They put me in mind of Bridget Riley.

  15. What a great thread, John. For the record, I think “Excellent Women” is quintessential Pym, “Quartet in Autumn” her most accessible for contemporary readers, and “A Glass of Blessings” her most fun, for its churchiness.

  16. Thanks Thad. I admit I’d more or less forgotten about Pym in the time (almost three years!) since I wrote this post. I will keep an eye out for Excellent Women.

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