Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Quartet in Autumn follows the lonely lives of four single people in their sixties who work together in a London office as they approach retirement. The novel covers a period of approximately eighteen months, during which the two women (who are the novel’s most developed characters) retire and one of them, Marcia, dies. The novel is episodic in structure, and its point of view moves from individual to individual as each goes about his or her daily round of activity. The four are not friends, although they make conversation in an agreeable enough way during office hours. They never see one another at any other time.

The novel begins in spring, and in an early chapter the four take vacations. Letty stays with her old friend, Marjorie, in the country, but she finds that Marjorie is romantically involved with David Lydell, the local vicar, and she feels left out. Marcia’s holiday treats are strange: a medical checkup, which brings her closer to the orbit of Dr. Strong, the surgeon who performed her mastectomy; and a bus trip to Strong’s house, which she admiringly views from a distance. Norman has no idea of what to do with himself when he is not working and just loafs about his bed-sitting-room. Edwin has a more normal vacation, visiting his daughter and son-in-law, but there are hints that in the future the young couple may take their vacations abroad and Edwin may not be wanted.

Letty had planned to share a cottage with Marjorie after her retirement, but her plans are scuttled when Marjorie and David become engaged. Letty’s life is further disrupted...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Quartet in Autumn Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Quartet in Autumn occupies a key position in Pym’s career. She worked on it for a period of three years, from 1973 to 1976, but she did not expect ever to see it published. Several publishers rejected it in 1976, continuing the pattern of rejection of Pym’s work that had begun in the 1960’s. Although Pym had had six moderately successful novels published between 1950 and 1961, the publishing mood of the 1960’s demanded more sensational topics than those of the commonplace, gently comic world of Barbara Pym.

The breakthrough came in January, 1977, when The Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, by poet Philip Larkin and critic Lord David Cecil, both of whom were longtime admirers of her work. (Larkin had read Quartet in Autumn in manuscript and had written to Pym, “It’s so strange to find the 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.”) Within a month, Macmillan had accepted Quartet in Autumn, and it was published to universally appreciative reviews, as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award.

This was the beginning of the revival of Pym’s literary reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1978, Excellent Women (1952) and Quartet in Autumn became the first Pym novels to be published in the United States. By 1980, all of her novels were either published or in the process of being published in the United States.

Because of its taut, sparse structure and its serious exploration of a tragic theme, Quartet in Autumn is often regarded as Pym’s finest novel. It marked a new stage in Pym’s lifelong observation of the nature and experience of women (disproving the comment made by Letty that “the position of an unmarried, unattached ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction”). Yet also, with its accurate representation of changing social patterns and its evocation of the disconnectedness and fragmentation of contemporary life, Quartet in Autumn struck a more universal note.

Quartet in Autumn Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Benet, Diana. Something to Love: Barbara Pym’s Novels. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Traces the evolution of Pym’s work from a comic, predominantly feminine vision to a tragic, universal vision. Includes one of the fullest scholarly analyses of Quartet in Autumn, which shows the significance of the concept of community and how desperately the characters need it.

Cotsell, Michael. BArbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discusses Pym’s novels in relation to contemporary literary theory, showing how they differ from their realist predecessors. Uses Pym’s notes to show how Quartet in Autumn evolved, and shows that the novel is not only about age but also about the failure of civilization.

Holt, Hazel. A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym. London: Macmillan, 1990. An authorized biography by a close friend and colleague of Pym’s. Describes the progress of Quartet in Autumn through notebooks, manuscript, and correspondence, and the remarkable events of 1977, which launched Pym’s revival.

Nardin, Jane. Barbara Pym. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An introductory survey of Pym’s work, describing her characteristic themes and their evolution during the course of her work. The section on Quartet in Autumn is mainly paraphrase and plot summary.

Rossen, Janice, ed. Independent Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A collection of ten essays that use biographical, historical, and feminist approaches to Pym’s work. Quartet in Autumn is discussed most extensively by Laura L. Doan in “Text and the Single Man,” an examination of the role that bachelors play in Pym’s novels. Doan shows how Pym’s “sexual ideology informs her narrative structure.”

Rossen, Janice. The World of Barbara Pym. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Focuses on the elements of Pym’s fiction that have roots in Pym’s personal life, as well as her fundamental ideas and perspective, such as English literature, spinsterhood, the Anglican church, and anthropology. Concludes that Pym’s work is colored by a provincial British view.