Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
The organisation where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working. Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate…
The activities of their department seemed to be shrouded in mystery – something to do with records or filing, it was thought, nobody knew for certain, but it was evidently ‘women’s work’, the kind of thing that could easily be replaced by a computer. The most significant thing about it was that nobody was replacing them, indeed the whole department was being phased out and only being kept on until the men working in it reached retirement age.
Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face ageing in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years. They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help. This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect.