Dubious Comfort: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn


There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

Early in Quartet in Autumn, Letty — one of the novel’s quartet of main characters — reflects on her past as an “unashamed reader of novels”: “she had come to realize,” we’re told, “that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatsoever to the writers of modern fiction.” They are of great interest, of course, to Barbara Pym, who could be considered the patron saint of all such overlooked and underestimated women.

Quartet in Autumn actually balances our attention between two more in Pym’s panoply of spinsters and two — what to call them? what is the male equivalent of a ‘spinster’? That we don’t really have one is suggestive of the ways in which aging alone is different for women than it is for men. Still, terminology aside, the characters have a lot in common besides having worked for many years in the same office (that we never learn anything about where they work or what they actually do becomes one of the novel’s tragi-comic aspects). Though one of the men is a widower, now they are all equal in their mutual isolation, and if that sounds like a paradox (how can they be so alone if they’re all together so much?), I think that’s one of Pym’s points: that simply sharing time and space, even over many years, does not in itself create meaningful connections between disparate people. And yet by the end of the book, which is certainly one of the gloomier Pym novels I’ve read, the connection between them has become something just slightly more than any of them thought or expected, and therein lies what small comfort a book about aging, retiring, losing one’s strength and faculties, and dying unmourned can offer.

I thought Pym was especially good — meaning both funny and painful — about retirement, which for many working people surely seems as much a looming threat as an anticipated promise. When Letty and Marcia retire, they are not replaced: “indeed,” we’re told, “the whole department was being phased out,” which raises discouraging questions for them about the value of the work they’ve done for all those years, and even about the reality of their entire working lives:

It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been.

This gives her, understandably, a “sensation of nothingness” that is hard to overcome despite the opportunity retirement affords “to do all those things she had always wanted to do” — “unspecified” things that turn out not to be all that fulfilling after all, and which hardly take up all the time she now has. Her first day of retirement is “as tiring as a working day” from the very effort to occupy herself, including during “a period between tea and supper which she did not remember as having existed before.” Perhaps because retirement is much in the air at my own workplace, with similar non-replacement policies raising questions both practical and principled, personal and existential, for all of us, her experience seemed particularly poignant to me: I know how much it can hurt someone to get the message the institution they have devoted themselves to can treat them as an expensive redundancy, someone to be urged out and happily done without.

Sad as the novel’s premise is — it is, indeed, autumnal, with its focus on unwelcome but inevitable changes in all facets of its characters’ lives — it is somehow never, or never completely, melancholy: Pym is too funny for that. There’s the saga of the misfit milk bottle, for instance, which I won’t spoil by relating — it’s not so much that I would ruin any suspense about it as that I could never capture quite why it is so daftly comical, but also so spot on about human nature. Alexander McCall Smith is quite right, in his introduction, to say that “we all have something that is the equivalent of that symbolic milk bottle.” It’s a smaller-scale comedy here than we get in Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (which is the earlier book club choice that led us here), but it’s also kinder: wry, rather than bitter. Though Pym gives us one truly depressing story about ending up alone, she softens the blow by helping us realize that even in age there are choices, and as long as you have a little life left in you, there are still “infinite possibilities for change.” The novel ends up feeling like a calming cup of tea on an otherwise bad day: it can’t really fix anything, but in its own way, it is bracing.

Barbara Messud: The Excellent Women Upstairs

She’s an ordinary woman leading a quiet life – no thrills, no romance, few expectations, just her work, her friends, and the comforting knowledge that everyone relies on her common sense. In a crisis, she can be counted on to make tea. All this changes when the new couple comes on the scene. The wife is an energetic professional in a whirl of commitments and contacts; the husband is a suave charmer. As she is drawn into their circle, our heroine finds herself both energized and resentful. What, exactly, is her role? What does she mean to these new people? What has happened to her life since they came — and what will happen when they leave?

messudAs my mash-up title suggests, this is the basic plot outline of two very different novels: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952). I read The Woman Upstairs a month or so ago and though I found it a page-turner, I ended up not liking it very much. It’s not that I minded the “unlikable” narrator: as I said in my piece on Olivia Manning (apparently quite an unlikable woman herself), “the chief obligation of a writer, . . . as of a character, is not that she be nice but that she be interesting.” The problem I ultimately had with Messud’s Nora was that I did not find her very interesting: she was too much up in my face all the time about how angry she was, and so the novel gave me no sense of discovery about her. The novel was a page-turner because I wondered what would happen and why exactly she was in such a rage. But the answers to both questions were rather disappointing. Nora’s anger especially seemed confused — which is fine for her as a character (she has no obligation to be crystal clear about her own emotional state, and anger does tend to mess things up) but not for the novel, which to me seemed to be trying to make a broader political and feminist case for anger out of one woman’s very personal neuroses and bad judgment.

But it was the artlessness of Nora’s narration that I found particularly tedious after a while: there’s no revelation to it, no subtlety compared to, for instance, Villette, which was the Brontë novel I kept thinking of as I read The Woman Upstairs. The explicit inter-text for Messud’s novel is Jane Eyre, which is a pretty angry novel, to be sure. But Jane’s retrospective narration adds a controlling layer of meaning, and Jane is more admirably assertive than Nora in pursuit of her own selfulfilment. That’s the Victorianist in me coming out, perhaps, but I got quite irritated at Nora’s complaining: stop moping (or ranting, which is just a louder version of the same thing) and get on with your life! Villette, in turn, is a much darker, twistier novel about the differences between calm surfaces and tormented desires, about repression and resentment and bitterness. And Lucy Snowe (cold, like her name, and coy, and judgmental, and yes, angry) makes us figure her out — and she doesn’t make it easy! There’s a readerly excitement in working out just who Lucy is and what she’s feeling that for me has no equivalent in The Woman Upstairs. For all its cleverness (and there are lots of smart things about it), Messud’s novel ultimately seemed kind of obvious (the big surprise at the end – who didn’t see that coming the minute they knew about Sirena’s cameras?).

pymI think this is why I liked Excellent Women so much better. It’s so understated that a lot of it nearly slips past unnoticed, but as a result, while it lacks the driving forward momentum of The Woman Upstairs, its rewards are both more subtle and more surprising. We almost don’t know that Mildred is ever angry at the way those around her treat her as an accessory to their lives or assume they know what she needs or (most annoying of all) whom she loves. “Perhaps,” she observes dryly at one point, “I really enjoyed other people’s lives more than my own,” but over the course of the novel we can’t help but realize how tired she is of being one of the “excellent women” — the women who are always depended on but are somehow never part of the action on their own behalf – “excellent women whom one respects and esteems” but never truly sees. “I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible,” says her friend William, “such an excellent woman.” “It was not the excellent women who got married,” Mildred reflects a bit later, “but people like Allegra Gray, who was not good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up.”

It’s Helena and her smoothly flirtatious husband Rocky who play the Shahids’ role in Excellent Women. “Things were much simpler before they came,” Mildred thinks. They stir things up, but in doing so they bring things to the surface that might have been better off left undisturbed. When they go, she’ll still have her old occupations, but the Napiers are more blunt than the Shahids ever are to Nora about how her options look to them:

‘What will you do after we’ve gone?’ Helena asked.

‘Well, she had a life before we came,’ Rocky reminded her. ‘Very much so – what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.’

‘I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn’t have a full life in the accepted sense,’ said Helena.

‘Oh, she’ll marry,’ said Rocky confidently. They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there.

‘Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,’ suggested Helena. ‘That would widen her outlook.’

‘Yes, it might,’ I said humbly from my narrowness.

Right there we see the genius of Excellent Women in microcosm: if you weren’t already enraged on Mildred’s behalf at the complacent condescension of her supposed friends, that moment of self-deprecating bitterness ought to do the trick.  She doesn’t have to yell at us about how angry she is, but we don’t have to be in her company long to understand that there’s a lot going on in her head that isn’t “excellent” at all.

Unlike Helena, Mildred spends a lot of time washing up – often, Helena’s dishes. After one particularly dramatic incident at the Napiers’, she finds herself in their flat, “with the idea of making some order out of the confusion there” — but also, really, to get some time to herself. The scene beautifully literalizes her discomfort and frustration at the life she’s living:

 No sink has ever been built high enough for a reasonably tall person and my back was soon aching with the effort of washing up, especially as yesterday’s greasy dishes needed a lot of scrubbing to get them clean. My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

She feels “resentful and bitter towards Helena and Rocky” but she also admits “nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me.” They aren’t altogether wrong, that is, in their assumptions about her, and yet (as her struggles through the novel with her hair, make-up, and clothing tell us) there’s nothing inevitable about the woman she is or is becoming. At the end of the novel she finds herself trapped once again in a part she doesn’t want to play but can’t seem to escape.

Messud’s novel suggests that anger is a necessary stage on the way to freedom, and in some ways its ending is triumphant: Nora has broken free of the Shahids’ spell and perhaps (though her narrative doesn’t convince me of this) gained some self-knowledge in the process. She is certainly fired up to do … something. There’s something infinitely sadder (if also, perversely, funnier) about Mildred’s conclusion, but I ended up a lot with a lot more invested in her fate, and feeling a lot more admiring of the art with which she was drawn.

Excellent Women is this month’s selection for the Slaves of Golconda reading group – look for more posts about it there in a few days.

“The value of appreciation” — Harrison Solow, Felicity & Barbara Pym

I missed Barbara Pym Reading Week by just a bit. I have been keen to read more Pym and serendipitously picked up a couple of Pym’s novels at a book sale just in time for it (The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves). And I ordered Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, which arrived on schedule. Then other things got in the way and I missed it.

sweet doveI did read The Sweet Dove Died a week or so later, though. It’s a slight little book, yet it wasn’t an easy read for me: I kept picking it up and putting it down and letting myself be diverted to other books. It’s true I’d been on a steady diet of Dick Francis novels and so perhaps my reading senses (they’re like spidey senses only less tingly) were not attuned to Pym’s dry tone and small scale. I was eventually drawn into the pathos (or is it bathos?) of Leonora’s lost loves, and of course I abhorred the loathsome Ned … but I felt as if the larger significance of the subtle nuances were escaping me.

I was afraid that my relative inexperience and lack of success with Pym (I didn’t love Jane and Prudence either, when I read it last year) set me up badly for Felicity & Barbara Pym. It turns out, though, that the opposite was true, as Solow’s charming and slyly provocative book is (in part) a tutorial for someone not altogether unlike me. Not quite or even very much like me, I hope, as the recipient of the letters that compose the novel is a self-absorbed undergraduate who gets a little snippy at blows to her self-esteem. Actually, that last bit sounds kind of familiar … Anyway (as Felicity might say), she’s registered for a seminar on Barbara Pym and Mallory Cooper (whose side of the correspondence is all we see) is called in to provide some advance tutoring.

Felicity initially isn’t much better at appreciating Pym than I was, and Mallory is quick to call her (alright, us) on it:

Your notes aren’t bad. You have touched on a few themes that Pym’s biographers, editors, and critics analyse repeatedly: Silly men. Mousy women. Tea. Religion. Quotations. These are worthy of mention. The fact that you still think nothing happens is not. It merely shows that you do not respond to what does happen in the novel, for whatever reason — innocence, feminism, scepticism, youth, cynicism, thoughtlessness, expectation, or too rapid and therefore too shallow reading of the novel — too light, perhaps, a perception of the economy of expression Miss Pym employs.

OK, OK: I am appropriately shamed and humbled.


Over the rest of the correspondence Mallory — cranky, erudite, witty, persistent — does her best to improve Felicity’s perception, working with her on nuances of dress and class, on historical contexts, on literary relationships (the riff on Religio Medici is particularly memorable), on silly men and, crucially, on the real significance of mousy women:

At best, the cultivation of mousiness is to participate in a distinctive moral past. At worst, it may indeed be a camouflage, brought about by war, under the protective covering of which the wish to inhabit one’s own cosmos peacably can be fulfilled.

“And now,” she continues, “– on to Tea” — and the excursus on tea is a wondrous thing indeed.

The Pym neophyte will benefit enormously from all of this: I have been moved not only to a greater appreciation of The Sweet Dove Died (“There is even an entire Pym novel devoted to the downfall of elegance, beauty, and taste, personified in the character of the colossally self-preoccupied Leonora”) but to a wish to reread Jane and Prudence and to acquire as soon as possible Excellent Women and Less Than Angels (at a minimum).

But the sneaky thing about Felicity & Barbara Pym is that Pym herself (as Solow acknowledges in her Preface) is not exactly the real subject of the book: instead, she’s a device for allowing Mallory — or  Solow — to critique academic approaches to literature she thinks are limited and limiting. Pym’s lack of academic currency (and really, how likely is it that anyone would offer or take an entire seminar on her novels?) makes her useful for this project: “she is such an antithesis to the prevailing attitude.”

It’s a project that could, like Pym, seem “outmoded.” Mallory speaks with nostalgia of a time when universities “were sacred to the pursuit of education, whereas now, for the most part, they are desultorily engaged in the dispensing of narrow expertise.” Her position is not exactly anti-theory: there’s even a theory primer of sorts near the end, which, though brisk and tendentious, is not inaccurate and includes the full URL of a real website at Brock University for “some rather more practical assistance,” perhaps even enlightenment. I might sum it up as a “pre-theory” position: Mallory feels that the literary conversation, particularly but not exclusively in the academy, needs to start with what Solow calls “the context of the civilisation of literature itself” — not just the big picture but the really big picture. “We do not read, after all, as a species,” Solow says in her Preface,

in order that we may deconstruct and dissect. People buy books and borrow books from libraries because they like them. They read, re-read, recommend, learn from, incorporate values from, live by, study, and take to bed at night, books they like; books they appreciate; books they find meaningful.  Appreciation is not perhaps what the university requests of its students today. But it is what writers … deserve.

As Felicity’s tutor, Mallory keeps broadening, rather than narrowing, the field of inquiry, the scope of questions. The ultimate goal, though, is not to ignore the range of theory, interpretation, and scholarship available but to arrive at it equipped with as rich an “appreciation” as possible, so that you can figure out its worth for your reading (and writing) with some independence. “I hope you will not ignore all of these critics,” exhorts Mallory, “for, among the labyrinths of nonsense, there is great, great worth. But that is for you to discover . . . ”

Excellent Women

To some extent I sympathize  with Mallory’s skepticism and impatience with the “labyrinths of nonsense,” and I certainly embrace the idea of appreciation, which is something I often pitch to my own classes as our goal (as opposed to, say, “liking”). The kind of appreciation Mallory endorses is also, crucially, not an anti-intellectual kind. There’s even a paragraph in the book that is eerily like a speech I have given more than once:

I want you to feel — and feel deeply about literature. But I also want you to know why and how these emotions are engendered by the writer, the text (apart from the writer), the words (apart from the text) as well as the relationship between the reader and all of the above. I also want you to be able to take that emotion out of any equation when it is necessary to do so. Otherwise, we could all take courses in “My Favourite Books” and spend endless and idle time in groups resembling your friend’s therapy session “sharing” our feelings about why we just love Gone with the Wind and how cool Harry Potter is. Not that there is anything wrong with that, intrinsically. But it’s not what we do in academic literary studies. If that’s what you want to do, join a book club.

Yet there are aspects of Mallory’s approach, and even more of her tone, that seemed a bit 1990s-culture-wars-ish to me, and I wondered how important it was that Felicity & Barbara Pym is epistolary fiction, rather than a straightforward first-person treatise or polemic: is Mallory herself being ironized even as she’s the vehicle for Felicity’s (re)education? Is her rather prim tone and affected manner a way of placing her at a safe distance? Are we meant to embrace her nostalgia, or to see her as embodying another among the list of theoretical approaches, one that purports to speak for the universal value of literature but that, in doing so, reveals its own limitations? (The book is actually, Solow says, “both fiction and non-fiction”; there are clear biographical parallels, but it’s also clear that we aren’t meant to assume a direct identification of author with speaker.)

Felicity & Barbara Pym, then, provokes as well as amuses. It had lots of connections, sometimes unexpected, to my own adventures in re-thinking literary criticism (speaking of “why we just love Gone with the Wind!). I would recommend Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel over Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and I didn’t much care for Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, but these are hardly irreconcilable differences to have with a book  so lively and ingenious.

Full disclosure: Harrison Solow and I follow each other on Twitter and have had more than one friendly exchange. I first learned about Felicity & Barbara Pym as a result of this contact — and I’m glad I did.