Barbara Pym might have selected as the epigraph for Quartet in Autumn the epigraph from E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), which reads “Only Connect.” In what is arguably the bleakest of Pym’s works, the novel depicts a world of anomie and isolation. The opening scene sets the novel’s tone, as the four main characters visit the library, each at a different time. The library assistant does not notice them. Pym comments that if he had, he would have thought that the four somehow belonged together; yet they remain separate.
In large part, the quartet’s isolation is self-imposed. Marcia’s bequest of her house to Norman shows that she had harbored feelings for him. However, the only expression of emotion she allows herself is in making his coffee and in sharing the cost of an ironically named family-sized can of coffee. The one time Marcia is visited by Norman, she merely glares at him, not speaking and certainly not inviting him in. She rebuffs Letty’s invitation to a lunch and hesitates to join her three coworkers for the reunion that Edwin had planned. Though she finally decides to attend the luncheon, she remains uncommunicative. Also, she will not allow her neighbors, or social worker Janice Brabner, to help her.
Marcia’s coworkers are equally reclusive. The four never meet outside the office. Norman’s and Letty’s visit at Edwin’s house for coffee before Marcia’s cremation is the first time either has been inside his house. Edwin finds Letty a new place to live when he learns that she is unhappy with her new landlord, then dismisses her from his thoughts. Once, when he meets Letty at a religious service, he finds her greeting to be overly warm; he never goes back to that church. When he takes flowers to the hospital, he leaves them with the receptionist without trying to see Marcia. After spending Christmas with his daughter, Edwin escapes as quickly as he can.
Norman visits his brother-in-law, Ken, once, when Ken is hospitalized, but they barely converse then or at Christmas, when Norman briefly visits. Although Norman has no work the day the office reopens after the Christmas holiday, he refuses to attend a memorial service for a coworker; Letty and Marcia also do not attend. Only Edwin goes. Norman objects to Edwin’s plans...
(The entire section is 944 words.)