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.
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.