Pym’s novels depict ordinary life among middle class Englishmen and women with compassion, humor, and irony. The quartet denoted in this title consists of two men and two women in their sixties, the autumn of their lives. These characters hold menial jobs at the same office in London during the nineteen-seventies; two live in rented rooms, and two own their own small houses. Pym’s opening chapter catches them going to the library, because it is free. She clues us in to their personalities by describing their hair: Edwin’s hair is “thin, graying and bald on top”; Norman’s hair is “difficult”, as he is; Letty wears her faded brown hair too long and soft and wispy. Marcia’s hair is “short, stiff, lifeless” and home dyed. (1-2)

Only Letty visits the library because she likes to read; the others take advantage of the shelter it offers. Edwin frequents the local churches when there are masses or holiday celebrations with sherry and perhaps free food. Pym depicts their office routines, conversations, and uneventful lives. When Letty and Marcia retire, the (acting) deputy assistant director wonders what they have done during their working life: ”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.” (101)

Letty moves in with another woman, and Marcia, alone in her house, wears her old clothes and forgets to eat. She resists the well-meaning social worker knocking on her door. Letty begins thinking of her failures: she did not marry, and she has no children or grandchildren. After some time, Edwin arranges a reunion at a restaurant; Letty tries to be upbeat: ”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.” (134) Marcia complains about the social worker and brags about her “major operation”, a mastectomy. She takes the bus to her surgeon’s, Mr. Strong’s, house to spy on him, and her encounters with him are her happiest moments. After Marcia’s decline into dementia and lonely death, the three office mates meet at her house, which Marcia has willed to Norman. Here they divide up the contents of her cupboards: the tins of sardines, butter beans, and macaroni cheese. They find an unopened bottle of sherry and toast each other as they remember their deceased friend.


This story offers rich material for the study of geriatric issues in medicine as well as a portrait of mid-twentieth-century British office culture. My American students have remarked upon the passivity of these eccentric English, and wondered how they endure their boring and impoverished existence. But Pym invests these boring lives with worth. She clearly likes and understands them. In between their disappointments and regrets, the quartet find momentary solace in a glass of sherry or a hot drink, and in caring about each other. However, in Pym’s view, human interaction fails to compensate for our fundamental isolation. A Kafkaesque pessimism imbues her assessment of our ability to communicate basic needs and fears.


Copyright 1977. Quartet in Autumn was a finalist for the 1977 Booker McConnell Prize.


Penguin Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count