Quartet in Autumn Additional Summary

Barbara Pym


(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.)


(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.)