Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

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(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 her mother. She stocks her cupboards with canned goods but eats almost nothing. Not long before the story opens, Marcia had a mastectomy, about which she hints to her co-workers, but which she never openly discusses. She has fantasies about her surgery; her holiday treat is a...

(The entire section is 1,527 words.)