Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym #1977Club

This is my second choice for this week’s 1977 Club (hosted by Simon and Karen) and the third book I’ve read by Barbara Pym. Having so far read only Excellent Women and Less Than Angels, I was surprised by how different Quartet in Autumn is. It’s a much darker, sadder, more poignant novel and, although I did like it, I found it a little bit depressing.

The ‘quartet’ are two women and two men – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in the same office in 1970s London. They are four very different people with different personalities, but they have two things in common: they are all in their sixties and they all live alone. Although Pym never specifies exactly what their jobs involve, it is implied that the four of them have been sharing an office for several years and have an understanding of each other’s personal circumstances and living arrangements. Despite this, and despite their loneliness, they never do anything together outside of working hours – they eat lunch separately and then go their separate ways again at the end of the day.

We learn very little about Norman, except that people consider him an ‘odd little man’ and that his social life consists solely of dentist appointments and occasional visits to see his brother-in-law, whom he dislikes. Edwin, a widower, is sometimes invited to stay with his married daughter and grandchildren, but otherwise tries to keep himself busy by taking part in as many church activities as possible. The two men seem to play slightly smaller roles in the novel, at least until halfway through when the women retire (not to be replaced) and the quartet is reduced to a duo.

Letty has always planned to move to the countryside with her friend Marjorie after her retirement, but when the unthinkable happens and Marjorie gets engaged, she is left facing a future in an old people’s home instead. But it’s Marcia who is the most tragic character – Marcia who has had surgery for breast cancer and looks forward to her trips to the hospital as ‘holiday treats’, who has developed an obsession with hoarding empty milk bottles in the garden and who attracts the unwelcome attention of a concerned social worker.

A book about four lonely people doing meaningless, unappreciated jobs and looking for ways to fill boring, empty lives does not make the most uplifting of reads, but Pym still manages to sprinkle some humour into the story and to leave us with the sense that there is some hope for our characters after all. Letty, at least, seems to want things to change and to be willing to take the first steps towards bringing about those changes.

Despite the sad, melancholic feel of the book, I think it is my favourite so far by Barbara Pym. Her observations are both witty and sensitive and I found myself really caring about Letty, Norman, Marcia and Edwin. Another good choice for 1977 Club and now I’m looking forward to reading Jane and Prudence, the other Pym novel I have on my shelf.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It’s been a few years since I read my first Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels, and I really thought I would have read another one before now. For some reason, though, it has just never felt like the right time and poor Excellent Women has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end. I wish I’d managed to read it sooner as I did enjoy it, although I think I preferred Less Than Angels, which is surprising as this is certainly Barbara Pym’s best known book and seems to be many people’s favourite as well.

Mildred Lathbury is one of the excellent women of the title and is also our narrator. An unmarried woman in her early thirties, she lives alone in a flat in 1950s London and works part-time at a society for impoverished gentlewomen. Although her parents are both dead, Mildred’s father had been a clergyman and the church is still a big part of her life. She devotes her spare time to helping out at her local parish church, St Mary’s, where she has become good friends with the vicar, Julian Malory, and his sister Winifred.

As the novel opens, Mildred discovers she has new neighbours moving in below – they are Helena Napier, an anthropologist, and her husband Rockingham (Rocky), who has just come home from the Navy. After being apart for so long, the Napiers are struggling to settle down into married life; Helena is preoccupied with her work and spending a lot of time with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, leaving Rocky to turn to Mildred for companionship and support. Soon Mildred finds herself more deeply involved in the problems of Helena, Rocky and Everard than she had intended to be – and a further complication arrives in the form of Allegra Grey, an attractive widow who takes the spare room at the vicarage and quickly begins to cause trouble for the vicar and his sister.

Excellent Women is definitely the sort of book in which characters are more important than plot, and I’m happy with that when the characters are as real and as convincing as these. I liked Mildred from the beginning – partly because, as a single woman myself, I could understand and sympathise with her in a lot of ways, but also because she seems a genuinely nice person. Her friends and neighbours expect Mildred to always have time for them and their problems, to listen, to give advice and to provide cups of tea – all the things that make an ‘excellent woman’ – but there’s also a sense that she is often taken for granted and misunderstood. She likes living on her own and values her independence and, while she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of marrying one day, it isn’t a priority for her either.

I enjoyed getting to know Mildred and spending some time in her world, but I didn’t love this novel as wholeheartedly as I hoped I would and as I know most other readers have. Although the writing is quite witty in places, I remember finding Less Than Angels a much more humorous book and I think that could be why I liked that one more. Or maybe I just like to be different! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s work – and will try not to wait so long before picking up another one.

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

Less Than Angels I’ve never read anything by Barbara Pym until now, despite feeling sure that I would enjoy her books, so Barbara Pym Reading Week seemed a good time to start. Less than Angels is not a book that I’ve heard much about so I was worried that it might not be a good one to begin with, but it’s the only one I actually own so it made sense to read it first. Luckily I did enjoy it and it has left me wanting to read more of Pym’s books as soon as I can!

Less than Angels revolves around a group of anthropology students, their professors, families and neighbours. Catherine Oliphant is a writer of romantic fiction and articles for women’s magazines. Her boyfriend, Tom Mallow, is an anthropology student who has recently returned home from being ‘in the field’ in Africa and is now working on finishing his thesis. Despite having very different personalities and not really understanding each other’s work, Tom and Catherine seem to have settled into life together – until Tom meets Deirdre Swan, a younger student who is just beginning to study anthropology.

While the relationships between Tom, Catherine and Deirdre form the central thread of the novel, another storyline centres around money for research grants which the rich widow Minnie Foresight has promised to give to Professor Mainwaring’s department. Among the students hoping to receive these grants are Deirdre’s friends, Mark and Digby, who provide a lot of the book’s humour. We meet lots of other great characters too, including Deirdre’s mother, Mabel, and her unmarried Aunt Rhoda. And there’s also Alaric Lydgate, an eccentric anthropologist who lives next door and can often be seen wearing an African mask around the house (and secretly wishes he could wear it all the time).

My first impression after reading Chapter One was that I liked Barbara Pym’s writing but was completely overwhelmed by the number of characters we were introduced to in that first chapter and the way the viewpoints changed from one to another so rapidly. Fortunately, after a couple of chapters things settled down and we could concentrate on getting to know one character at a time.

I thought Catherine was a lovely person and although she and Deirdre could be seen as rivals, Catherine’s mature attitude to the whole situation made it easy for me to like Deirdre too. It was interesting to read the contrasting descriptions of Catherine’s solitary but independent life in London, and Deirdre’s life in a middle-class suburban household, living with her mother, brother and aunt. I thought it was funny when one of Deirdre’s fellow students, a Frenchman called Jean-Pierre, visits the family to study a typical English Sunday! I liked the idea that there’s as much for an anthropologist to study in English habits and traditions as there is in the customs of African tribes, and I was also interested in the comparison of the insights writers have into human life as opposed to the views anthropologists have.

I loved Mark and Digby too. One of my favourite scenes was the one where they take Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate to a restaurant and spend the whole time worrying about the cost and trying to choose the cheapest things on the menu. I also liked the part where Professor Mainwaring invites four of the competing research grant applicants to his house in the countryside for the weekend. Near the end of the book, the story takes a more dramatic turn which I thought felt a bit out of place with the rest of the novel. Apart from this, I enjoyed Less than Angels and am excited about reading more of her books.

Barbara Pym Reading Week

After the Sunday Papers #11

“She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers”
~ Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife


Time for one of my (very) occasional Sunday posts, I think!

War and Peace Readalong – May update

I’ll start with some brief thoughts on May’s reading for the War and Peace Readalong I’m participating in this year. In May, we read Book 2, Parts 3 and 4. I’m finding the book much easier to read now that we’re further into it and have had the opportunity to get to know the characters. However, I’ve also found that for some reason I have very little to say about this section of the book. I was pleased that there was no ‘war’ – though instead, we get a very long and detailed description of a hunt, which made me think I might actually have preferred a battle scene after all! It was good to spend more time with some of the female characters, especially Natasha and Sonya, whose storylines are starting to move forward now. And I still feel sorry for poor Princess Marya. I’m looking forward to reading Part 5 in June – and being halfway through the book!

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Are you taking part in Barbara Pym Reading Week? I’ve never read anything by Pym before but so many of the bloggers I follow love her books that I knew it was time to try one. I’m reading Less Than Angels, which is maybe not the one I would ideally have chosen to begin with (I really wanted to read Excellent Women first) but it’s the only one I actually own. Anyway, I’m enjoying it so far and will post my thoughts on it later in the week.

New book arrivals

I haven’t bought any new books for a while, but I’ve received a few review copies. Paris is the one I’m most looking forward to reading as I love Edward Rutherfurd and have read all of his previous books. I don’t know much about the others (The Son by Michel Rostain, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed) though I’ve read some very positive reviews of the first two.

I hope you’ve all had a good weekend! What are you planning to read this week?