(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

From the first page of Quartet in Autumn, the reader enters the separate, solitary lives of the four main characters. Although they spend most of their waking time together, working at dull office tasks, each one has chosen to live alone, pursuing different routines based on long-standing habits. Treating each character as equal in importance and interest, the author passes in and out of their thoughts, conversations, and activities, sometimes doing so within the same paragraph. Moving from one to another and back again in a closely textured pattern, Barbara Pym narrates the minutiae of their rigidly circumscribed lives.

The opening chapter begins with separate lunchtime visits to the library, each with a different purpose. Edwin Braithwaite, a church buff, does some research on the background of a certain clergyman; Letty Crowe (the only reader) looks for a book containing more “truth” than is to be found in modern fiction (Pym is here poking fun at herself); Norman merely enjoys a brief change of scene; and Marcia Ivory finds a hiding place for an empty box, a piece of rubbish which, in her eccentric opinion, is not suitable for the dustbin. Back in the office, there is desultory conversation, followed by unspecified work, teatime, and the end of another day. The two men depart, leaving the two women to straighten up the office, as all seem to find entirely appropriate.

It is in this office that the lives of the four characters find a focal point as they perform meaningless kinds of clerical drudgery. Here they reveal to one another only as much of themselves as they wish to reveal. Good manners, natural reticence, lack of any real interest in other people’s private concerns, and, in Marcia’s case, increasing disconnectedness with reality prevent them from participating fully in one another’s lives. Nevertheless, by almost imperceptible degrees, they begin slowly to become more than casually and superficially involved with one another. They themselves are hardly aware of the gradual changes in their relationships.

The plot, if a series of small incidents can be called a plot, consists of four strands, each representing the life of one of the characters. For purposes of summary, the strands can be taken up one at a time, though they are so closely interwoven in the narrative that it is not easy to separate them.

Norman, who lives in a bed-sitting-room, is small and spiteful, makes no secret of his virulent hatred of blacks and of automobiles, and regularly reads aloud the cash register receipts for his minimal grocery shopping; he also likes to share selected bits of the newspaper, particularly such items as the discovery of an old person dead of hypothermia. He visits his brother-in-law in the hospital, later spends Christmas with him—he has no closer relative—and occasionally looks in at the British Museum, where he contemplates mummified crocodiles. He spends his annual holiday adjusting himself to dentures, about which there is no discussion.

Edwin spends most of his leisure time visiting churches, on the lookout for special events related to the liturgical year, talking church shop with Father Gellibrand, whom he calls “Father G.” He enjoys having a house to himself since his wife’s death and grudgingly spends as little of the Christmas holiday as possible with his married daughter and her family.

Marcia, as has already been noted, is the odd member of the quartet. She collects empty milk bottles and plastic bags, buys clothes she never wears, rarely speaks, and totally rebuffs the well-meant overtures of her neighbors and of the young volunteer social worker who tries to help her. Marcia also has a house to herself since the death of...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)

Quartet in Autumn Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Four London coworkers in their sixties live quiet lives. Edwin Braithwaite, the only one of the quartet who had ever married, lives alone in Clapham Common in a semidetached house. His wife, Phyllis, had died, and his married daughter lives in another part of England, near Eastbourne.

Edwin devotes his free time to visiting churches. He is not particularly religious or even spiritual; rather, he enjoys the routine that the church calendar imposes. He serves on his local parochial church council and as master of ceremonies (an undefined position) of his parish church. Though he enjoys the company of his parish priest, Father Gellibrand, their conversation is limited to ecclesiastical subjects.

Norman, Edwin’s coworker, rents a room in a house in Kilburn Park. His sister had married a man named Ken, a driving instructor. Edwin’s sister dies, leaving Ken as Norman’s only relative. The two have nothing in common. Norman hates cars so much that the sight of a damaged automobile delights him. He also dislikes the young, complains about inflation, and takes a dim view of life generally.

Sharing an office with Edwin and Norman are the fashion-conscious Letty Crowe and the fastidious Marcia Ivory. Letty was born in Malvern in 1914. In the late 1920’s, she had moved to London to take a secretarial course and had met a woman named Marjorie, with whom she has remained in touch for more than forty years. Marjorie had married Brian, now deceased; she had tried to pair Letty with Brian’s friend Stephen, but nothing came of this effort.

Letty now rents a room in the house of Miss Embrey, who has two other boarders: Marya from Hungary and Miss Alice Spurgeon. Letty is the only one of the office quartet who has traveled abroad extensively, taking her vacations with Marjorie. Letty expects to move into Marjorie’s country cottage when she retires, but that plan goes awry when Marjorie becomes engaged to her local vicar, David Lydell.

Marcia lives alone in a semidetached house. She has had a mastectomy and had developed an infatuation with her surgeon, D. G. Strong. She even had traveled twice, just to look at his house. Fastidious about certain matters, Marcia maintains a collection of empty plastic bags arranged by size, and in her garden shed she keeps about one hundred empty United Dairy milk bottles, which...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Quartet in Autumn Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Quartet in Autumn studies the lives of four office workers, two men and two women, and discovers the fates of the two women when they retire. The quartet functions as a team at work, but their private lives are detached from one another’s and from those of other people; in fact, they are such faceless people that none of them is replaced when he or she retires because no one is sure exactly what work any of them does.

The first member of the quartet, Letty, lives in a rented room and shares the kitchen and bathroom with the owner of the house. In retirement, she plans to live with an old school friend, Marjorie, an arrangement that is upset when Marjorie becomes engaged to a much younger man, cleric David Lyell. Letty moves to new quarters and is welcomed by the neighbors, including the priest of an African sect, but is put off by their exuberance and retreats to her solitary life. Also living alone is the bachelor, Norman, whose only human contact is his deceased sister’s husband, Ken, who tries to include Norman in his life but is rebuffed. Norman is a thoroughgoing misanthrope. The other male member of the quartet is Edwin, a widower, who owns a home and is active in the Anglican Church. Edwin is the most outgoing of that group and ultimately takes Marcia to the hospital and stands in as her next of kin.

Marcia, the catalyst for most of the action in the novel, is unmarried like Letty but has the good fortune to own a nice house, which she has allowed to deteriorate. Always peculiar and isolated from other people, Marcia completely withdraws from humanity after her retirement. She obsessively saves hundreds of milk bottles in her garden shed, remembering wartime shortage when the rule was “no bottle, no milk.” Marcia also hoards canned food but eats very little, usually only her deceased cat’s leftover...

(The entire section is 755 words.)