I requested pretty much the rest of Barbara Pym’s novels from the library, so I’ll be reading a lot of Pym this next month. Hooray! I find her novel of manners to be biting and clever, peopled by characters who are complex and perplexing. It’s a dream.
Quartet in Autumn is darker than normal, but I find it highly interesting and frank in its portrayal of retirement and end-of-life issues. The novel centers on four people (hence, the quartet): Edwin, a Christian man and widower; Norman, a single man in a “bedsit,” which I believe is a studio or bedroom-only apartment; Marcia, who has undergone a mastectomy; and Letty, a woman who is single and trying to maintain a cheerful attitude. All four are connected by their work together in an office, but also by loneliness. When Letty and Marcia retire, a chain of events is set in motion that cause all four to question their relationships and their place in the world.
As I said, this is a lot darker than the other Pym novels I read, but it’s really important in its treatment of retirement and life change. If I was to teach a twentieth-century British novel class, I would pair this with Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, which deals with the same issues in a more comedic tone, but nevertheless portrays end-of-life issues as crucial to consider. If you’ve never read Barbara Pym, I wouldn’t necessarily start here, but don’t skip out on it at all! I think it’s one of her more poignant works. But after I’ve gone through the canon, I will probably reassess this statement.