Bookishness: Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn & A Giveaway of Margaret Kennedy & D. E. Stevenson

THE GIVEAWAY.  No sooner have I washed the dust off from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale–and there is a lot of dust on old books, as you can imagine– than I’ve discovered I have duplicates of three of them.   If you would like Margaret Kennedy’s Together and Apart (Virago), Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon (Virago), or D. E. Stevenson’s Celia’s House  (a VERY used ex-library book), leave a comment.

Pym Quartet in AutumnCATCHING UP ON MY READING JOURNAL.  I have read some short books this week because I have been immobile with a cold/flu thing.  Barbara Pym’s classics are perfect when one is sick.  They are light, the writing is elegant, and her understated humor is original and diverting.  Characters are always drinking Ovaltine, sorting out clothes for jumble sales, and getting to know the curate.  A good flirtation with a curate:  that’s what we need!   Only do we have curates in the U.S?

Quartet in Autumn is not what I’d call a typical Barbara Pym. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1977, it is a dark comedy about two men and two women who work in an office.  Retirement is imminent for these characters in their sixties, and their future will be determined to a large extent by their living arrangements.  Letty, a sympathetic spinster, lives in a bedsitter, always has a library book going, and will not buy dyed carnations.  Edwin, a cheerful widower and a homeowner, needn’t live on his salary, is conventionally religious, and spends his leisure attending church services and events  Norman, an odd, cranky man,  lives in a bedsitter, goes to the library to sit but not to read, and dislikes travel but enjoys travel brochures.  Marcia, the most peculiar of the lot, doesn’t throw away rubbish, keeps her milk bottles in a shed in the back yard, and is visited by a volunteer social worker, whom she scorns.

Working in an office is a strange way of life, and what one does can be obscure.  When I worked in an office, we spent much of the time chatting, and were only really busy one week out of every month.  Pym’s description of the work world fills me with mirth.  The office life revolves around shared rituals like drinking instant coffee or tea, chatting about hypothermia, and going to the library on the lunch hour.  No one in the building knows exactly what work this quartet does, and it is understood that their jobs will be phased out and they will be replaced by computers.

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Living alone can be dicey in old age, and, oddly, various churches both help and hinder their plans.  Letty had planned to retire to a village with an old friend, Marjorie, a widow, but when Marjorie gets engaged to the new vicar who is 20 years her junior, that is the end of that.  What, Letty wonders, has she done to end up alone?  Why has no one ever wanted to marry her?  And yet stasis is impossible:  she must make a change even if she stays in London, because her landlady has sold  the house to a boisterous Nigerian priest of a Christian sect, and Letty is no longer comfortable there.  Edwin, through his  church connections, finds Letty a room in the house of a cantankerous woman in her 80s, Mrs. Pope.  Letty stays in her room and reads library books, but they sometimes watch TV together in the evenings.

One of the few characters outside the quartet is Janice Brabner, the social worker.  Confronting Marcia in her dusty house is disconcerting, but Janice keeps visiting.

You’ll be retiring,’ Janice Brabner had said.  “Have you thought at all about what you’re going to do?”…

Marcia had never revealed what exactly her job was but Janice guessed that it hadn’t been particularly exciting.  After all, what kind of job could somebody like Marcia do?  She wished she wouldn’t keep staring at her in that unnerving way, as if she had no idea what what was meant by Janice asking what she was going to do when she retired.

“A woman can always find plenty to occupy her time,” Marcia said at last.  “It isn’t like a man retiring, you know.  I have my house to see to.”

After Letty and Marcia retire, heir disappearance into retirement activities is fascinating.  This is not a hopeless book–Pym’s never are–but it is unsettling and at times acerbic.  The quartet comes together again, and the ending is surprising.

11 thoughts on “Bookishness: Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn & A Giveaway of Margaret Kennedy & D. E. Stevenson

  1. Ooh, I would love Celia’s House since her books are getting hard to find. Lately, I’ve been buying copies of books I already own. Is it age?

    • Cynthia, Celia’s House is yours! The buying duplicates thing really makes me want to weed like mad. Maybe I could get rid of the contents of one whole bookcase. We shall see!:)

      • Kat, thank you so much. I’m actually buying a new bookcase this week to try to get some out of the attic.

        By the way, I’m almost finished with Book One of My Struggle and can’t wait to start Book Two.

  2. I’m *so* glad I’m not the only one who buys duplicates! I got lost halfway through the year of reading Pym, but I’m sure I will find my way back to her eventually!

  3. I would be happy to have either of the Margaret Kennedy books. I have been seeing comments about her on blogs and she unknown to me.

    I am retired and I enjoyed Quartet in Autumn. It has more bite than most of Pym’s books.

  4. I really loved the Kennedy books when I read them some years back, especially Together and Apart. I’ll send both to you unless someone else wants one. I’m grateful to get them ut of the house and give them to online friends.

  5. I read my first Barbara Pym earlier this year when ‘Jane and Prudence’ came up on one of my book group lists. I really enjoyed it, perhaps the more so because I had a terrible cold when I was reading it. You are so right about her work being just what you need when you’re not feeling up to par. What do you think I should read next and I’ll get a copy in just in case I should be in need of further literary medicinal aid later in the winter.

  6. Alex, I love all of them, but perhaps skip The Sweet Dove Died and a posthumously published novel, A Few Green Leaves (at least until later). A very strange ex-beau who is not much of a reader and who tracked me down on the internet claimed A Quartet in Autumn was too depressing. Since he reads only books about the Holocaust, I was startled by his reaction to Barbara Pym. (I don’t think anyone has characterized her as “too depressing” before.)

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