on 29 May 2013
"The position of the unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction." Pym contradicts this belief of one of her own characters in her novel "Quartet in Autumn".
It focuses on the lives of four characters in their sixties who have worked together for years in an office. They have never socialised out side of work hours and there are gaping holes in their knowledge of each other - because they keep things to themselves, and it would not be polite to ask. Marcia has had an operation, but only Lettie knows it was a mastectomy, and only Letty knows that Marcia has a crush on her surgeon.
From the outside it seems that their lives are quite dull and uneventful. They don't really like the company of others, and are not able to communicate their loneliness. Often being around someone is irritating for them and they prefer to be alone.
No-one really knows what their jobs entail, and when Marcia and Letty retire, they are not replaced, in fact the whole department is due to be phased out, leaving them feeling insignificant. They become cut off from one another.
The main theme of the novel is considering whose responsibility it is to care for those who are alone and incapable of caring for themselves. It is also about the awkwardness of inviting colleagues to become friends, the propriety which prevents it, and the realisation that family is who you choose to invite into your life, not just blood relatives.
The main characters share family sized jars of coffee and family sized tins of biscuits in the office. They are the closest acquaintances that they have, yet they don't see themselves as friends. They are alone, together.
Pym makes the point that society is not geared towards single people, leaving many old people neglected, yet ultimately we all end up alone. Edwin has been married and has a daughter, Norman has a brother in law, Marcia's mother and cat died, Letty has cousins and a friend, but they all feel alone.
It is suggested at the beginning of the novel that these four, "belong together in some way." and the story follows their progress as they work out the nature of their relationships. Sadly it takes a tragedy before they realise their need for human connection, the importance of overcoming any awkwardness and making an effort to tolerate company.
At the start of the novel the characters don't understand how someone can slip through the net of the welfare state, none of them think it could happen to them. But the novel progresses to show that it is the failings of everyone, including themselves, social workers, church members and doctors, who let people slip through. They realise, having seen Marcia's fate, that everyone needs a support network, and they need to help themselves by reaching out for each other.
I've heard people say that this is not a plot-driven novel and that nothing much happens, but I don't agree. The lives of Letty, Edwin and Norman are deliberately boring initially, before they break out of their habits, but Marcia's health carries the trajectory of the plot all the way through. Right from the outset she grabs the reader's attention with her habit of disposing of items of rubbish on the shelves at the library.
The characterisation is carefully constructed, especially in the first chapter. As the story progresses you realise you have already been told enough about the characters to understand why the situation comes about. Seemingly insignificant details become crucial later, and not one word is wasted.
I have had to reread the novel in order to review it, and I think there is a strong urge to go back and work out where it all went wrong. In waiting for the themes of the novel to appear I didn't pay attention to what I was being shown. Like the characters, I didn't see, or take seriously, the early signs of Marcia's dementia in the minutae of their daily lives. Perhaps they, like I, just thought that she was a batty old woman. Which is exactly what Pym wants us to think, before she shows us that our stereotypes prevent us from helping those who need it.
Letty is the main character. We get a full 'curriculum vitae' of her life, and you can see that some aspects of Letty's life are autobiographical. Pym loved reading, never married, moved in with her sister after she retired, and died of breast cancer. Perhaps with through Marcia and Letty, Pym explores her possibilities, the outcomes of various choices, positive and negative.
Letty finds it difficult to get to know people. She eats at the Rendezvous cafe which is ironic because the doesn't speak to anyone there. She has started to think about her own death, sometimes a little morbidly. She tries to remain slim and attractive. She has her hair done and dresses nicely.
Letty's life undergoes drastic change. Around the time of her retirement, her friend Marjorie tells her they can't move in together because she's marrying a vicar. To begin with she has no idea what her retirement plans will now be, and is quite passive about it, "I expect something will turn up when I retire." Her circumstances change again when her new landlord turns out to be noisy, and so, thanks to Edwin's help, she moves in with a woman about twenty years older than she is. At first Letty avoids her, but gradually they start spending more time in each other's company.
Letty is the most adventurous of the four and learns to embrace her choices. She is the heroine of the piece because she seems to overcome her fear of loneliness and realises that although living alone is a more secure option than sharing a home and possibly being abandoned (as she was my Marjorie), she has to live her life fully.
Letty has stopped reading romance novels, which never feature women of her age, and now reads biographies, creating a sort of pseudo intimacy through reading, while also enabling Letty to live vicariously through the lives of those deemed significant because they lived exciting lives. Revealing the details of our lives to one another is how we become intimate, just as Pym creates intimacy between us and the characters with bits of biographical information.
Marcia has always been a bit odd, but losing the regularity of going to work causes her health to decline. She refuses the help of a woman from Social Services, won't take the doctor's advice to eat more, doesn't want people around, is generally off-putting, rude and staring, and begins to show signs of dementia.
She stores tins of food, more than she might ever need, certainly more than she eats which is barely nothing. Her mismatch clothes hang off her. She tries to dig up her cat because she just can't remember where she buried it. She has not removed the last clump of its fur from the bed it used to sleep on. She keeps all her milk bottles in the shed, which she dusts regularly, while she never dusts the house. She becomes really annoyed after Letty gives her some milk - because is in a different kind of bottle. She collects information leaflets for the elderly, which she ignores.
Marcia is so funny when she feels she might have to invite Letty to live with her because, "Letty had always been kind to her; she had once offered to make her a cup of tea..." But she won't invite her because of the odd milk bottle she gave her.. Marcia doesn't like Letty when she is warm towards her because she thinks Letty is interfering.
She has strange ideas about old people, that they don't need to eat much, or need go on holiday, and that "women alone had to make their own way in the world."
Marcia's most intimate connection is with Mr Strong who did her mastectomy. She now craves his attention. It is possible that she knows her not eating will result in having to go back into hospital where she can see him. Her drawer full of new nighties, put aside for the next time she goes into hospital, suggests this. Or perhaps this shows her sense of inevitability that the cancer will return.
She feels imperfect and incomplete without her breast, and it is hinted at that although she genuinely forgets the doctors' orders to eat more, she starves herself to hide her shape under baggy clothes.
Marcia regards her visits to the hospital as sacred. She is "quietly triumphant" when she is told to arrange another appointment.
Marcia's cancer ought to connect her to other cancer survivors, but her attempt to talk to a charity collector fails, and isn't helped my Marica's strange appearance, her 'marmoset eyes behind the thick glasses.'
Edwin is heavily involved in the church. But he doesn't seem to be able to get what he needs from one church as he goes on church-crawls. He takes refuge in endless saints days, filling his life with the security of church rituals. This gives him a sense of busyness, belonging and support which the others envy him for, but it seems a little neurotic. He feels his loneliness gives him freedom to do what he wants, but it seems like time-filling.
The only reason Edwin starts his church-crawls is because the local coffee shops keep changing and modernising. Edwin feels safe being part of archaic rituals and knowing that the church won't update itself. It gives him a sense of security. The handful of people found in these churches are very old fashioned and don't like the idea of introducing new-style services with guitars and standing for prayer. They don't sit together but scattered among the pews showing the emotional distance between them where they should be a family, just like our four main characters. So the people within the church are holding it back from growing, and yet they are bothered by decreasing numbers.
Edwin opens up about his wife's funeral at Marcia's funeral. Sadly he had come home to find her dead in the kitchen.
Norman is a prophet of doom. He is always pessimistic, sarcastic, blunt and even rude. He has a snappy voice and has a funny way of shaking himself like a dog.
When Norman goes to visit his brother-in-law Ken in hospital, he fees he is doing something noble, but in reality Ken has a girlfriend who visits him seperately, and they pity Norman who is alone. This is ironic because Norman thinks he is comforting the elderly, which probably makes him feel younger and stronger, while Ken's endurance of Norman makes him feel the same. At this point Norman doesn't see himself as being something pitiful. He is sarcastic and cruel while Ken feels pitying contempt for Norman. He strengthens himself by seeing others as weak.
Norman keeps stating that things like death, hypothermia, starvation and falling through the net of the welfare state are inevitable and things they all have in common. He jokes about it without really imagining it happen to them. When it does happen to one of them, it shocks him into a different perspective.
I thought this would be a quick read - it's only 176 pages - but it's packed with clever observations which make it meaty and allow it to fully explore the themes it raises which are :
Each of the characters places their faith in something. Norman places his in the inevitability of death and misery. He thinks a lot about death and things that irritate him, to the point where he no longer notices good things. He doesn't seem to have any hope, unlike Edwin who places his hope in God. Marcia places her faith in Mr Strong, the surgeon. ("If the surgeon were God, the chaplains were his ministers"), and Letty who places her hope at first in her friend Marjorie and later in herself.
There are several representatives of the church in the novel:
*Father Gellibrand - an old, old-fashioned type of priest in contrast to young, long-haired modern priests wearing jeans. He catches himself dissmissing Marcia because she isn't in his parish, and luckily, overcomes convention to help her.
*The Roman Catholic and Anglican chaplains at Marcia's hospital. No-one wants their help but they are bombarded with complaints about the church. t
*David Lydell who cheats on Marjorie, whom he'd already moved into the vicarage with him. He shows no no concern for Letty at all. He does not behave like a clergyman should. He does however provide a funny moment where he talks about his diarrhoea, showing that he doesn't have the sensitivity you would expect from a vicar in the community.
*Mr Olatunde the priest of the sect, The Church of Aladura, who is quite welcoming but loud. This si the kind of church that is lively and might attract young members, but does not appeal to the elderly. Perhaps he should show more respect for his neighbours.
*Norman, not religious, but a prophet of doom! He is the antithesis of the church in the novel because of his hopelessness and irritability.
Through these characters Pym illustrates what she sees as being the problems with the church in the 1970's, the difficulties it was facing, its ineffectiveness and its alienation of people.
Edwin is described as being "among the two or three gathered together" for church that evening, which is reminiscent of the verse from the bible, "where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."(Matthew 18:20) I think Pym is suggesting the sanctity of companionship, and asking why it seems that the elderly people are god-forsaken just because they are single and alone.
It is possible to see the last lunch that the four ate together as being like the last supper. When they consider it in hindsight it gains significance, because the death that follows is what is required for each to see how they have been living and transform their lives.
The Welfare State
Marjorie thinks the state should care for the elderly. The social worker Janice thinks the doctors are taking care of Marcia. Edwin thinks Letty should rely on friends. (Edwin doesn't even see the washing-up as his respnsibility and has old-fashioned ideas about what women ought to do.) Norman thinks the job of caring for the elderly falls on family. Their employers think that retired people don't eat much, that they must have savings, an that they'll be fine because social services are so good and the media spread information for the elderly. Everyone passes the buck and in doing so, someone suffers.
Marcia is old enough to need to be treated with respect and allowed to make her own decisions, but in fact she is not able to help herself, and doesn't realise it. What can you do when someone doesn't want help? You have to intervene - put aside politeness, take responsibility and act as guardian. Having had this experience, the others draw closer together to ensure that they all protect one another.
The Social Worker's colleague, advises her about Marcia, "make contact, by force, if necessary. Believe me, it can be most rewarding." This would serve as advice for all the characters, indeed for everyone, not to let social conventions or feeling awkward or irritable stop you from having friends. The initial step of friendship is always awkward, involving a fear of rejection or appearing odd. But we do need to make that effort.
The novel is full of incidents of people spending time with each other because they feel they should but in reality, hating each others company. Marcia uses her unkempt lawn to deter people. Norman uses his pessimism and odd sense of humour. Edwin keeps changing churches where he doesn't have to have much contact with other people, and Letty just politely tolerates awkward situations.
Pym writes about how humans struggle to overcome our need for independence and desire to be alone, in order to participate in life and enjoy the company of others.
The other three characters realise it is worth getting to know each other better after this, and the funeral puts them in new and unusual situations - rather than just the office - which brings about a different kind of conversation.
At the end of the novel, Letty is finally able to reach out to people and draw then near, creating a situation where they can become closer. rather than waiting for someone else to lead the way.
Read this novel slowly, piecing together the evidence of how the characters feel for each other. There is a surprise towards the end that will make you want to read the book again, and in doing so you'll be able to fully appreciate the richness of Pym's writing. This is my first Pym book, and I think she's an under-rated genius.