‘Come let us mock at the great’ quotes Muriel Spark in the epigraph for The Abbess of Crewe. She is quoting WB Yeats’s poemNineteen Hundred and Nineteen. ‘ … for we/ Traffic in mockery’ it ends.
The immediate reference for this scrutiny of corruption, power, surveillance and false information is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. For those too young to remember two Republican Party employees broke into the Watergate building to install wiretaps so they could overhear the plans of the Democratic Party for the forthcoming US Presidential Election. President Nixon tried to cover up his connection with the burglary but the scandal unravelled his career and he resigned in 1974. Are bells ringing yet?
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
The novel opens as the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, Sister Alexandra, speaks with the naïve Sister Winifrede, who has forgotten that the Convent is bugged, including the poplar avenue in which they are walking.
The Abbess is a striking character, who dresses in white while the other nuns are in black. She drives the novel forward with her belief in herself, and the self-serving actions that result from her self-belief. As her plotting becomes more and more convoluted and Rome begins to question what is happening in the convent, she tries to claim special privileges.
In the election Sister Alexandra defeated Sister Felicity, who has then left the Convent and is stirring up press interest, especially about her stolen thimble. The Abbess is ably supported by two nuns, Sister Walburga, the prioress and Sister Mildred, the novice mistress. Their gofer is Sister Winifrede, the hapless young woman who will do whatever they ask, and get thrown to the dogs for her sins.
It emerges that the theft of the thimble was a by-product of a break-in by two young Jesuit novices, paid to look for evidence against Felicity, specifically her love letters from her Jesuit lover. It is not clear why they took the thimble. In the background is Sister Gertrude who is absent from the Convent as she seeks to reconcile cannibals and vegetarians in Peru and other such intractable opposing groups. The Abbess has recorded everything, which may or may not bring her down in the end. She plans to tough it out using a mixture of obfuscation and confidence.
The Abbess of Crewe today
Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power. Political corruption is shocking, perhaps more shocking in a religious house. But Muriel Spark is not making a case against the Roman Catholic Church, only using its traditions, establishments and rituals to demonstrate how people are manipulated, power is illegally obtained, and how information gained by any means is used to achieve and maintain power. Relevant today?
As I don’t own a copy of this novel, I borrowed one from Devon Libraries. It had no less than six labels for date stamps, from 1982 to today. This has been a popular book. It is savage, unrelenting, short, sharp and relevant to any situation where a manipulator is trying to hang on to power – to politics, then. I should point out that no one comes out well from this treatment, this ‘traffic in mockery’ by Muriel Spark. And I should also point out that there are many, many small points of humour and many quotations from English poetry.
I am very glad that #ReadingMuriel2018 put this novel my way.
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, published in 1974 by Macmillan. 128pp
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