The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The four principal persons of the novel are distinct in appearance, personality, habits, and responses. With a light, deft hand and telling details, Barbara Pym particularizes each character. Often the characters are described as an outsider would see them. For example, a young woman comes into the office to pick up outgoing mail, and the four are fully aware of how she may see them: “Edwin, large and bald with a pinkish face, Norman, small and wiry with his bristly grey hair, Marcia with her general look of oddness, Letty, fluffy and faded, . . . still making an effort with her clothes.”

The small events of their lives are so bound up with the kinds of people they are that any summary of the plot must inevitably include and reveal the leading players in their own undramatic lives. Norman is scrappy and caustic though ineffectual, often flippant or sarcastic. No indication is ever given that there is a different, perhaps gentler person beneath the surface. Edwin, on the other hand, often attempts to soothe or excuse the others, more to keep peace than to offer genuine sympathy. His absorbing interest in the church does have the merit of providing him with endless, though often trivial, activities. As with Norman, what the reader sees is apparently all that there is.

The two women, on the other hand, lead some kind of interior life that adds to their characterization a dimension lacking in the men. Marcia is so withdrawn as to be almost completely isolated from everyone else, but her obsessions, fantasies, and secret acts, such as staring at her doctor’s house, create different levels of personality. Her life is actually quite rich, in its loony, peculiar way.

It is only Letty who seems to think about the situation in which she and her coworkers find themselves. She meditates on the sense of nothingness that she feels upon retirement and on the strangeness of life as it slips away. She shows herself to be sensitive and thoughtful as the other three are not, and it seems clear that through her the author injects her own views of the characters and of their lives, often with gentle wit, always with deep understanding and compassion.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Letty Crowe

Letty Crowe, a clerical worker in a London office. Letty is a shy, lonely woman in her sixties who lives alone in an apartment. She is the typical English “spinster,” a respectable woman with appropriate behaviors and attitudes. Letty survives a move to a different apartment and, after her retirement, adjusts to new routines. Her plans to move to the country and live with an old friend, Marjorie, are disrupted when the latter decides to get married. Later, after Marjorie’s plans for marriage are canceled, Marjorie expects Letty to live with her as previously planned, but Letty now realizes that she has choices in life. She does not decide immediately what she will do. When her colleague Marcia dies, Letty is called on again, this time by her two male colleagues, to help resolve details of Marcia’s estate.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia Ivory, a clerical worker in the same London office. Unlike Letty, who is careful about her appearance, she takes little care of her appearance or health. An incurably private person in her sixties, she never recovers from the deaths of her mother and her cat. She was never married, and she lives alone in her mother’s house, where she hoards cans of food and plastic bags. In a shed in the back yard, she maintains a collection of empty milk bottles, which she meticulously cleans and rearranges periodically. After a recent mastectomy, she has become obsessed with her surgeon, and she even makes surreptitious visits to his house. After her retirement, she becomes reclusive, physically frail, and increasingly demented, and she finally dies of cancer.

Edwin Braithwaite

Edwin Braithwaite, a clerical worker in the same London office. His thin, graying hair and solemn air are appropriate to this widower in...

(The entire section is 743 words.)