I’ve just finished Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn. I thought it would be useful to do some reading round a course that I’m going to be leading in October which will include another Barbara Pym book, Excellent Women.
Full marks for style and content to the author, five out of ten to the publisher who thought that the illustration by Pat Fogarty was suitable. It’s a nice picture, but it inaccurately portrays the content of the novel. True, it shows four middle-aged characters, and three of them do go into libraries at different points in the story, but never all four together.
Am I wrong to expect the cover to connect precisely with the content? Obviously it doesn’t carry the same weight as a title created by the author, yet it does infect my reading. Half-way through the novel I realised I was waiting for that scene. The further I got into the story the less likely such a gathering place seemed.
It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the picture never does happen, and yet I gave it five out of ten. That’s a high score for something I’ve just accused of misdirecting me. Well, retrospectively, I see the value of the Fogarty cover over some of the others.
I’ve been looking, and found some plain ones, and how about this patterned one? Tasteful, I grant you, and it doesn’t in anyway impact on my plot expectations.
It reminds me of some wallpaper in my grandmother’s bedroom, and I can imagine picking up this novel to read. Trust me, it says, to offer something domestic, elegant and tasteful. Well, that’s true, up to a point. But I like to be surprised by a story, and this cover does not suggest the underlying darkness that Pym reveals.
Then there’s this rather stylish, one. Houses in the suburbs, and a distant church spire, are certainly part of the setting. But why so much pink, and the clean straight lines? Perhaps the blank windows suggest that behind the order of the picture there are secrets…
It must be hard to design a cover to suit all readers. It’s certainly tricky to come up with a perfect title.
And maybe I’m being too particular. After all, what the Fogarty picture does get right, for me, is tone. The four characters, formally dressed, carefully posed, set the period. I like the distances between them, and the detail of their clothes. They look real, and ordinary, and I want to know what they are talking about: what the painter is trying to tell me. Add in the colours, especially that shimmering floor, and it does suggest, Quartet in Autumn.
Whatever my personal preferences are, each cover hooked me in a some way, and the diversity of those tones may well have tempted in readers who might never otherwise have picked up a Pym novel.
Imagine a row of us, sitting on the underground, each reading the same words, bound with contrasting covers. I wonder what we look like?