#1977Club ” There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria”.
I’ve been so disorganised lately, so it’s completely miraculous that I’ve managed to not only read a book in time for #1977 Club hosted by Kaggsy (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (Stuck in a Book), but to knock a blog post together in the nick of time too – woohoo!
Deadline achievements aside, I’m so glad I did, as my search for a suitable title among my bookshelves led me to my first Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn. I have read so many rave reviews of Barbara Pym’s novels, but for some reason, never got around to reading any, so this has been a good week. Barbara Pym is now in my world and that makes it a good place to be.
In Quartet in Autumn, Pym takes a wry, unflinching look at ageing. Marcia, Letty, Norman and Edwin work together sharing an office. It would be a stretch to say that camaraderie abounds freely between them. They have little in common apart from work and each prefers to keep to themselves although there is no animosity between them, as such. Edwin, a widower, busies himself with church involvement, while socially awkward bachelor Norman lives in a bedsit and spends his spare time in the library and the British Museum. Marcia is prickly and fiercely independent. She lives alone, collects milk bottles and has an apocalypse worth of tinned food neatly catagorised in her cupboards, even though she barely eats. She had major surgery in the last few years and while Edwin turns to God for solace, her trust firmly lies in the hands of her redeemer, the surgeon, Mr Strong. Letty lives in a room in a shared house, but is biding her time for retirement when she will leave the stresses of London for a life of tranquil companionship in the countryside with her friend Marjorie.
As the novel begins, Letty’s plan to move in with Marjorie, unravels when her friend unexpectedly meets and becomes engaged to a clergyman, some years younger than herself. The sudden abandonment of their plans is all the more painful for Letty as Marjorie has found love while Letty now faces an uncertain future.
Marjorie proceeded to recall that first meeting and the subsequent development of her relationship with the man she was about to marry. Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.
Added to this, Letty’s landlady has sold her boarding house to a Nigerian pastor and while the tenants can still stay on in the house, there is much fear of the Olatunde family’s difference. It was a strange experience reading this passage. The racist sentiments so openly expressed by the characters made for very uncomfortable reading which I initially put down as being of the novel’s time, but on reflection, I wonder. I would love to think we’ve evolved from such bigoted opinions, but there seems to have been a rise in people’s intolerance of difference of late. Have we just swapped our fears of one sort of difference for another? That is just too depressing for words.
Edwin manages to find a room for Letty with one of his parishioner acquaintances and they begin the awkward journey of adjusting to sharing a house together. Marcia has no desire whatsoever for the companionship of anyone else. She is tormented by the well-meaning visits from the Social Worker who seems to think she can’t possibly shop, feed herself properly or fill her time without the insipid entertainments put on to corral the elderly. However, when the old colleagues get together for a meal, it is Marcia’s well-being which concerns the others. She has lost a lot of weight and her unkempt appearance and strange outfit makes her look deranged. Since retiring, the only company she has sought has been that of the doctors at her hospital appointments, and she has even taken trips just to gaze at the house of her surgeon.
All the way home she thought of Mr Strong and the kind of meal the surgeon would most likely be having this evening – steak, perhaps or a nice bit of fish, salmon or halibut, with fresh vegetables from his garden. She was sure there were vegetables in that garden although she had not been able to see the back of it when she had gone to look at his house last year…Should she go there now on a bus and make sure?
It was beginning to get dark and while she hesitated a bus drew up at the stop, illuminated like some noble galleon waiting to take her on a voyage of discovery. Inside the brilliantly lit interior, women who had come from late-night Thursday shopping in the West End chatted and compared the things they had bought – wasting their money, Marcia thought, choosing an empty seat in the front and holding herself aloof from the chattering women.
Still unsettled by the appearance of Marcia, Edwin and Norman talk about whether they should make arrangements to meet up again. Unable to face the awkwardness, they let it go, but both men take trips to her house to check up on her. Norman’s conscience is salved when he spots her pottering outside her shed from across the street, but when Edwin visits with Father G. they find her unconscious at the kitchen table and she is rushed into hospital.
Meanwhile, Marjorie’s romantic idyll dissolves when her betrothed runs off with the Warden of the Care home. Marjorie just assumes that Letty will be happy to revert to their original plan of living together. However, Letty has other plans. She has begun to warm to her new living circumstances and isn’t prepared to risk her security on someone who has let her down before. After all, how long before Marjorie meets someone else and ousts Letty from her future again?
When Marcie passes away, everyone is surprised to discover that she has left her house to Norman in her will. Despite her ferocity, such a gesture is both touching and sad. Tragic because Marcie didn’t have anyone closer than a work colleague to leave her home to, yet touching in that she could see that such an inheritance would make such a difference to Norman, providing him with some choice and self-determination. Marcie’s own demise perhaps could have been avoided at this time if she had been more open to the involvement of others, but Barbara Pym makes a powerful and unsentimental case that however well meant, care should not be foisted onto the unwilling. Losing one’s capability and failing health are trying inevitabilities of ageing, but losing one’s independence is the hardest thing to take. While many elderly people suffer from loneliness, not everyone minds being alone, and being forced into company can be as bad, if not worse.
What could have been mundane, depressing and sentimental in a lesser writer’s hands, is razor sharp, funny and an absolute joy to read in the hands of Pym. I think we have lost the art of under-statement in the intervening decades since this was written, and reading a novel with such nuanced elegance and wry wit about libraries and church jumble sales was wonderfully refreshing.