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.