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review 2019-05-27 10:18
"Quartet in Autum" by Barbara Pym
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym
Dispassionate to the point of discomfort, "Quartet In Autumn" is filled with strong insights unburdened by empathy.



"Quartet in Autumn" follows the changing lives of four people who have worked in the same office for some years and who are now approaching retirement. The quartet is made up of two men and two women, although the focus is mainly on the women.


Based on reading Pym's "Excellent Women" and "A Glass Of Blessings", I'd expected a gentle, empathetic and ultimately hopeful look at the lives of mostly impoverished English lower-middle-class people, with splashes of humour and moments of annoyance at the unreasonable behaviour of men.


"Quartet In Autumn" isn't that kind of book. It takes place in the 1970s rather than the 1950s and focuses on people who choices in life are narrowing as they approach retirement. The tone is one of quiet, mostly polite, desperation rather than hope.


The authorial voice is chillingly distant, moving from head to head amongst the four, like a camera in a reality TV Show, or the voice-over in a documentary on animals in a zoo. The result feels more like voyeurism than intimacy. Pym's authorial voice is a constant subliminal whisper, with each episode in a person's life dropping softly, like a handful of earth on a coffin, piling layer after layer of disappointment, self-denial, delusion and quiet unprotesting despair, until I felt interred in the lives of these women.


Perhaps I found "Quartet In Autumn" an uncomfortable read because I am at the same stage of my life as the quartet, my working life is almost behind me and what I do next is also probably what I will do last. I found that this made me increasingly impatient with the way these four people continued not to look at their lives in any way that would either acknowledge how they felt about where they were or make any deliberate changes. That seemed depressingly real to me.


I did not find myself cheering for any member of the quartet. I didn't care what happened to the men. Of the two women, Letty came closest to someone I might care about. I identified with her difficulty in connecting with others. When I saw her taking a hurried, solitary lunch in a restaurant crowded with other solitary people in a hurry, I felt a moment of recognition. I've done this often and I have the same defensive habits as Letty so I felt sympathy with Letty's reaction when as she is eating her meal, another solitary, unknown woman takes a seat at her table:

She looked up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale, bluish eyes troubled about VAT . Then, discouraged by Letty’s lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed. Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.

Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact.

As the book progress, my sense of recognition was replaced with the question, "What happened to these people?"


Letty, the most vibrant of the bunch sees herself as an involuntary maiden, caught on a tide of history, part of a generation of women cheated by the war of their opportunity to meet and marry, as if she’d missed a bus and was now doomed to walk.


As Pym displayed Letty in successive chapters, I realised that the woman I first thought of as independent and self-aware, was broken, not in a fractured by trauma way but more in the way of someone whose hands are swollen and callused through habitual misuse. Her manners constrain her perceived ability to act. Her expectations are meagre and vague yet she lacks the will actively to pursue them. Part of Letty's passivity or paralysis may come from her inability to understand the course her life has taken. She asks herself:

How had it come about that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?

The answer she gives herself denies her agency over her life in a way that she seems quite unaware of. She concludes:

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.

The way Letty thinks about her religious or spiritual life points to the heart of her inertia. When her new landlord asks her is she is a Christian lady:

Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say ‘yes’, for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that. How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity –a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?

I was left thinking that her "grey, formal, respectable" life felt like a shroud that she has donned too early.


Marcia, the other woman in the quartet is mentally ill, a condition either brought on by her mastectomy or worsened by it. Marcia's damage is of the traumatic kind. I find being inside Marcia's head disturbing. She has a strong will. Her behaviour is disciplined, she reaches logical conclusions, takes responsibility for her life and yet she is trapped by fears and anxieties that shape everything she sees.


Marcia has an obsession with keeping a supply of canned goods in her house and having a collection of milk bottles set aside against some unspecified future disaster.


This hit me harder than it should. My mother was eight-years-old when the blitz destroyed large sections of her city. She lived through times when food was either not available or closely rationed and when baths were filled at night in case there was no running water in the morning. She was not Marcia but throughout her life, she had a cupboard full of canned foods and a freezer full of meals "just in case". Some things, usually the worst things, never leave you.


I find Marcia entirely believable and I really wish I didn't.


With remarkable dispassion, Pym uses Marcia to show how, despite being visible to ex-colleagues, being monitored by a social worker and being under the care of a doctor, women like Marcia can lose all connection with the world and fade away and be forgotten. Here's the social worker's response to Marcia Ivory's death.

Everything concerning Miss Ivory was settled with calm efficiency, without recriminations and certainly without tears, and that was a great relief.


The two men in the quartet, Edwin and Norman are so slightly drawn it is hard to know who they are except that they seem hollow men with low expectations that they still often fail to meet. Neither of them interested me. They seem to me to be platitudinous, speaking only the ritual words that those of us with marginal social skills through the enforced proximity of working in a shared office.


This can be seen in the way the men in the responses of the men in the office to Letty's disclosure of unexpected and undesirable changes in her retirement plans and in her new landlord, a Nigerian priest in the Aladura Christian sect.

'It never rains but it pours," said Norman the next morning when Letty has told them in the office about the new development in her retirement plans. ‘First, your friend getting married and now this –whatever next? There’ll be a third thing, just you wait.’ 

‘Yes, troubles do tend to come in threes, or so people say,’ Edwin remarked. There was, of course, an undeniable interest and even unadmitted pleasure in the contemplation of other people’s misfortunes, and for a moment Edwin basked in this, shaking his head and speculating on what the third disaster might be. 

‘Don’t tell us you’re getting married too,’ said Norman jauntily. ‘That might be the third thing.’ 

Letty had to smile, as she was meant to, at such a fantastic suggestion. ‘No chance of that,’ she said.

The hurt inflicted by the unthinking use of these boiler-plate phrases goes unobserved by the men using them. To some extent, the hurt is created by Letty, who can neither deafen herself to the negative implications of what has been said nor free herself from the pattern of ritual responses.


In the final chapter, Pym tries to open things out a little for the three remaining members of the quartet. Unlike Marcia, they are alive. They have choices. If they have the courage to take the right ones then they need not follow Marcia into fading away, isolated from the world. I was convinced. I'm not sure Pym was either. The main skill of these three seems to be a talent for just enough self-deception to get through the day.


It took me a couple of months to read this book, rather than the couple of days I'd expected. At first, that was because I found I could only eat this depressing meal a little at a time. Towards the end, when I better understood what Pym was doing, I found myself asking angrily, "Why am I being shown these things? What purpose does it serve?" it was too real to ignore and too bleak to enjoy. I felt as if I'd unintentionally bought a seat at a vivisection.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-05-12 16:27
Final Thoughts: An Unsuitable Attachment
An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym

In terms of tone, this novel is somewhere between the two Pym works I've previously read: it has much of the lighthearted banter and witty observation of Excellent Women, but also a melancholy air akin to Quartet in Autumn.


The "unsuitable attachment" of the title is supposed to be that of John and Ianthe, but I felt that it actually extended to all the potential and actual pairings in the novel. Penelope, in particular, interested me: she seemed to be a character at a crossroads between tradition and modernity. Rupert calls her a "Pre-Raphaelite beatnik," which is a great way to describe the kind of societal limbo in which she exists. She has an interesting conflict with herself and her sister, constantly being pulled towards the traditional life path of marriage, but somehow knowing that she would be setting herself up for disappointment. Her sister's own marriage seems uninspiring, and it's not until Ianthe's wedding at the end that she seems to wake up to her own possibilities, should she stray from the beaten path. The final scene, however, leaves her in a bit of a cliffhanger situation.


Ianthe and John... well, that was an odd courtship. At one point I described him as stalkerish and creepy, and I wasn't convinced of his character. Once I'd finished the novel, I turned to Larkin's introduction, where he points out that John "seemed faintly threatening (‘ John had been intended to be much worse,’ Barbara wrote apologetically)." That made more sense.


As for the other male characters, a petty part of me can't help feeling that the way they're portrayed might have influenced the publisher's decision. As Larkin points out, his contact at the publishing house explained: "At that time we had two readers, both of whom had been here for many years: William Plomer and Daniel George. Neither then or at any time since has this company rejected a manuscript for commercial reasons ‘notwithstanding the literary merit of a book’." There's very little to commend any of the men in this novel, especially in their approach to their relationships with women. A few choice quotes:


- "‘Reading, were you?’ Rupert picked up the book which lay on the little table by the fire. It turned out to be the poems of Tennyson, bound in green morocco. Could she really have been reading that? he wondered, looking around for the novel stuffed behind a cushion."


- "How convenient women were, Rupert thought, accepting her offer, the way they were always ‘just going’ to make coffee or tea or perhaps had just roasted a joint in the oven or made a cheese soufflé."


- "not that he loved her but that he would like to see her always in his house, like some suitable decoration or finishing touch."


- "Now that he was left alone with the two women, both of whom (he imagined) rather admired him, Rupert felt a sense of power, though there being two of them rather limited the scope of what he could do – cramped his style, he might almost have said. In the end, after the tea had been made and drunk, there seemed nothing for it but to escort them home."


- "Rupert hardly knew what to say. If only he could take her to bed with him, he thought as they approached the pensione, so much might be smoothed out there. But perhaps it was just as well that circumstances made it impossible at this moment, for that might bring about even deeper complications."


- "within not much more than a month he – the meekest and kindest of men – had made a woman cry."


- "taking her by surprise so that she could not refuse a casual invitation to lunch."


The women aren't very helpful either: Sophia upholds the status quo, and even the seemingly progressive Penelope hangs on to ideas about her place in society. In the end, it's the apparently old-fashioned Ianthe who surprises them all by marrying for love instead of respectability. Whatever comes of her marriage, it feels like a spark of hope.


My one big criticism of the novel is the re-introduction of Everard and Mildred as a married couple. At the end of Excellent Women, the situation was undefined, and the reader left to contemplate possibilities. Here, a single phone call does away with any speculation. At the end of An Unsuitable Attachment, I'd like to keep to my own fantasies about Penelope's encounter with Rupert.

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text 2019-05-12 02:01
Reading progress update: I've read 89%.
An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym

I'm worried about how Ianthe is going to come out of all this...

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text SPOILER ALERT! 2019-05-11 19:04
Reading progress update: I've read 56%.
An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym

I was actually kind of bummed to read about Everard and Mildred. Maybe because I hadn't really wanted to imagine going down that path at the end of Excellent Women. Sometimes it's better to just let characters fade away after the last page?

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-05-10 19:05
Tea, Pembroke Tables and Marriage
An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym

An Unsuitable Attachment was Barbara Pym's seventh book -- a number that should prove ominous, as this would turn out to be the book which publishers rejected on the grounds that it was (allegedly) "unpublishable".  Various reasons for this were advanced; apparently Pym was told initially that it just wasn't the kind of thing people wanted to read in the mid-1960s anymore, whereas her friend Philip Larkin was later given to understand that the book had been reviewed unfavorably by the two key pre-publication assessment "readers" within the publisher's own editorial team (apparently Larkin was shown their reviews as well). -- Neither of these reasons strikes me as convincing; neither when looking at this book in isolation nor when comparing it to the vast majority of the major publishers' fiction output in recent years (including this very publisher's, Jonathan Cape / Penguin Random House).  Publishing standards really have slipped abysmally in the past 50 years if this book was rejected on quality grounds in 1963 -- and I wouldn't even dream of insulting Ms. Pym by comparing her work to the likes of 50 Shades of Grey  (whose only justification for existence is its gigantic cash cow persona to begin with).


True, not every character here is as fully drawn as they might be; and this is true in particular for the gentleman who constitutes the eponymous "unsuitable attachment" himself, John Challow (Pym really did like painting pictures with her characters' names, didn't she?).  He remains little more than a cipher -- enough to imagine just how he might have been considered "unsuitable" for his intended, Ianthe Broom, a "well-bred" librarian and clergyman's daughter (and niece) with enough of an income and "nice things" -- including a Pembroke table and some Hepplewhite chairs inherited from her parents -- to secure a comfortable existence, five years his senior and far enough past her prime so as to raise an expectation that she will inevitably become, in the words of the local vicar's wife, "one of those splendid spinsters ... who are pillars of the Church and whom the Church certainly couldn't do without."  But while we do learn that Ianthe

eventually does genuinely fall in love with him and decides to stand by her "attachment"; convention, suitability and expectations of her family, neighbours and parish be ... binned (hooray for Ianthe)

(spoiler show)

, we never find enough what actually binds him to her

strongly enough to propose marriage in the first place.

(spoiler show)

There is the predictable suggestion, of course, that he (a gentleman of no wealth, education or "proper" sense of style with nothing to recommend him other than a pleasing manner and his good looks -- the words "tall, dark and handsome" spring to mind) is chiefly courting her because she provides just the sort of financial security and social position that has been lacking to date in his life, and which he may well only ever be able to attain by marrying a woman just like her.  But we also learn about him early on that he reads poetry, Lord Tennyson no less (a fact of which Patricia Wentworth's paragon of propriety, Miss Maud Silver, would doublessly have approved with all her heart) -- and we also learn in their first encounter that he finds Ianthe "rather pretty" (albeit "not very young") and feels attracted (personally, not merely opportunistically) by her "air of good breeding".  So, ever the optimist, I would like to believe he genuinely does care for Ianthe ... but other than those early indications, we learn little enough about his feelings for her, which I think is a shame.


(And, as a side note: My, my, how social attitudes do change.  It's been a long time since "film work" has last been looked up as something disrespectable, even by the self-declared "well-bred".  O tempora, o mores ...)


Other than this, however, I really fail to see what the publisher's in-house reviewers found so horrible -- horrible enough, in fact, to reject not only this book but to bring about an almost 15-year publication hiatus for Pym.  And if "a major character who remains a cipher" should have been one of the things that the publisher's reviewers found lacking, I really don't see why (other than as a result of being shamed into it by Larkin and The Times Literary Supplement) the publisher should finally have accepted Pym's Quartet in Autumn -- which contains at least one such major character as well (Norman, first and foremost) ... and yet, ended up being a contender for the Booker Prize.


In fact, in one respect An Unsuitable Attachment is much closer to Quartet in Autumn than to an early novel like Excellent Women: While, like the latter, it does start out as a seemingly rather lighthearted satire of social mores and attitudes, Pym gradually abandons her merry distant hilltop perch as the novel progresses (and as the characters' frustration with each other and with life in general mounts), until, like in Quartet in Autumn, the only distance left is one allowing her to observe her characters and their various (mostly self-inflicted) conumdrums from a perspective that still allows a certain amount of empathy but also disparate analysis and (at least implied) criticism.  And with that change of authorial perspective, the reader's perspective changes, too (well, mine did at least) -- towards the end of the book, I felt disenchanted with pretty much everybody except Ianthe and (mostly) Mark Ainger, the vicar; though I did warm somewhat towards Daisy

for her completely unprepossessing acceptance of Ianthe's and John's engagement and her instant willingness to help them in the face of John's potentially losing his job over his engagement to Ianthe,

(spoiler show)

even if this does come straight on the heels of one of her trademark mixtures of trumpeted do-goodery mixed with snobbery and prejudice vis-à-vis total strangers:

"Whenever [Daisy] entered a café she always felt obliged to choose a table where a coloured man or woman was already sitting, so that they should not feel slighted in any way.  Looking around her, she saw a table for four with an African already at it.  Then she noticed that a clergyman, also bearing a tray, was making for the same table, but she managed to get there before him and put her bag down on the chair next to her to prevent him from sitting down.  One never knew -- he might be a Roman Catholic or Oxford Group: it did not occur to her that he too might be trying to show the black man that there was no colour bar here."

And of course, I very much agree with Sophia (the vicar's wife)'s choice of Earl Grey as the tea appropriate to a conversation with another vicar about a difficult subject.  So well-bred and civilized, and such a contrast to the unsuitability under discussion!


But ultimately, I am left with pouring the bulk of my affections where they have been right from the beginning, onto Faustina, the vicarage cat; and I'll leave you with her final coup reported here -- memo to fictional cat owners everywhere: you do not try to spoon-feed your feline a thoroughly disgusting substance; even less so, without even trying to mask its flavour (and if you do, you most certainly don't use miniature anointing spoons):

"'Take an apostle spoon,' Edwin Pettigrew had said, in that calm way that inspired so much confidence, making it all sound so easy.  And certainly one would have thought that a vicarage was the one place where one could be sure of finding plenty of apostle spoons.  Trying to hold Faustina firmly under one arm, Sophia rummaged in the silver drawer but could not find one.  Then she remembered the coffee spoons that had been a wedding present and were kept in a satin-lined case.  Surely those were apostle spoons?  They looked something like them, but then she realized that they were miniature replicas of the coronation anointing spoon -- not so unsuitable, really, for with a jerk of her head Faustina sent the spoonful of liquid paraffin running down her face and brindled front so that she had, in a sense, anointed herself with oil.


Sophia let out a cry of exasperation as the cat jumped to the ground and stalked away.  Who would ever have thought that a miniature anointing spoon could have contained so much, she asked herself, for her hands and the front of her skirt seemed to be covered with liquid paraffin."


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