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November 3, 2010

Two old books: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym and Anne of Windy Poplars by LM Montgomery

Last week I read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn as I slowly (savouringly) make my way through her books. Quartet is the book Pym published after her years in the wilderness, the fifteen years where her work was considered unpublishable and her books went out of print. Her famous redemption came about in 1977 when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both (independently) nominated her as one of the century’s most underrated writers. Quartet was published not long after that, followed by The Sweet Dove Died, which had been written previously and was rejected and rejected and then was not anymore.

Quartet is the story of four office mates (and what they do is quite beside the point. When the women retire, their positions aren’t filled. Days mostly hinge around brewing kettles and cups of tea) who are near retirement and who, through various circumstances, have each found themselves much alone in the world. And yet the four aren’t close either, which makes the story particularly interesting: what if the people who are closest to you hardly know you at all? And what if you’re fine with that?

Pym does a wonderful job of showing the discomfort of a person rather set in her ways who is forced to face a world that is changing. Though this makes for uncomfortable reading at times– I am not sure whether or not we’re meant to empathize with Letty when she leaves her flat because a family of Nigerians have moved into the unit below. Even Letty is not proud of her uncomfortableness, and I suppose this storyline is racist, but I also think it’s an honest depiction of very human situation. It’s not so much that Pym is racist, or her story is, though the character is, but that’s kind of the point. And I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason not to read the novel anymore.

Was hoarding a diagnosis in the 1970s? Because it’s all the rage these days, of course, but Letty’s co-worker Marcia was hard at it back in the day, filling the house she’d shared with her late mother with unopened packages of nightware from Marks and Spencer, stocking the cupboards with cans, and filling her garden shed with milk bottles (just in case there’s another war, and it’s the last war, where there was no milk without bottles). Pym manages to make Marcia’s affliction mildly amusing, actually, but it’s also sad. But not so sad– this is not a sentimental book. It’s not that lonely people are funny, or that funny people are lonely, but just that lonely people are, and I think it’s an idea that’s still incredibly profound.

**

I just finished reading Anne of Windy Poplars, which I’d been meaning to do since Kate posted about it ages ago. It’s a strange novel, the fourth in the Anne series (between of the Island and House of Dreams), but it was written after all of them. I don’t think I’ve read this book in over twenty years, but I have recently read two biographies of Montgomery and so have a better idea of its context than I did the first time. That Montgomery was being pushed by her publishers to give her readers more Anne, and so a novel like this was sort of cobbled together. That she was also limited it what she could do with Anne in this in-between story, because certainly nothing too profound could happen to her that would have to be accounted for in her already-established later history.

This novel takes place over three years in which Anne and Gilbert are living apart while she is working as principal of a high school in Summerside and Gilbert is studying at medical school. Much of the novel consists of letters she writes him, and I agree with Kate that these letters like nothing else express the true depth of their relationship. (Though unlike Kate, I never thought Gilbert was a dud. Perhaps that is because to me, he will always be Jonathan Crombie).

Because not much can happen to Anne then, this is an account of what happens to the people all around her– the people whose lives she touches, the curmudgeons she brings around, the wild people she manages to tame with her charm and by her wits. Some of these stories really are a bit much. We do see an Anne who is quite self-aware at times, and funny, remarking at one point of her tendency to meddle in the lives of others. This is less a novel really than a collection of episodes, almost short stories– it’s not so unlike The Blythes are Quoted in many respects, though of course Anne is much more central to what goes on. So many of the episodes are quite familiar to me from Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel which (please forgive me, and maybe I’m wrong because I’ve not seen it for a while) might be better than the book is. Which is not to say the book is bad, of course.

I had a similar problem with this book that I had with Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables, with Anne encountering Anne-like characters. In Windy Poplars, it’s the story of Little Elizabeth, the lonely child who lives in the forbidding house next door and dreams of forever escaping into “tomorrow”– with all her talk of fairies and poetic trees, she’s like Anne Shirley on speed, and really, how can there be two of them? The whole point of Anne, her charm, is that she’s one in the million. Diana managed to be her kindred spirit while being nothing like Anne, and truth be told that dynamic made a lot more sense to me.

About Diana, a sad note in the novel– Anne goes home to Green Gables and Diana scarcely registers. She has a new baby, and Anne remarks at one point that Diana is busy in a whole other world, and that’s the end of it, but I found it disappointing. They were kindred spirits after all! Interesting also to see Montgomery locating her story in a wider context– there are mentions of boys, including Gilbert, going out west to work on “that railroad” they’re building out there. References to Anne teaching The War of 1812, and noting how lucky they were that days of war were far behind them, which was doubly not true by 1936 when the book was published.

3 thoughts on “Two old books: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym and Anne of Windy Poplars by LM Montgomery”

  1. Carrie says:

    Kerry, I’ve re-read Anne of Windy Poplars more times than other Anne book, and even into adulthood (ie. fairly recently), and I think I like it because it is episodic–like a collection of short stories. The larger plot is thin, and there’s a bit too much sentimentality (a general L.M. problem), but for some reason I can set that aside and get a kick out of the individual tales. (Though you’re right re precocious Elizabeth, absent Diana, etc.). Still my favourite Anne book.

  2. Kerry says:

    I always thought Ingleside was my favourite, for I loved it when I was about 10. I have a feeling it may resonate less. I hope Rilla of Ingleside doesn’t though…

  3. Kristin says:

    I’m reading An Unsuitable Attachment by Pym right now…so good. She makes me laugh out loud. I liked A Quartet in Autumn too. I didn’t love it like I love so many of her other books, but it was an interesting read.

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