A Far Cry from Kensington is one of Muriel Spark’s later novels, published in 1988. It is set, however, in the 1950s in London. One of the chief pleasures of this short novel is the deft way in which she introduces and deploys so many characters. There are the residents of the boarding house, eight of them including the narrator, Mrs Hawkins. And there are no less than three different workplaces that employ her and their staff and many would-be authors who visit. There are cousins, friends, neighbours, handymen and their wives, printers, priests and visitors and there is Hector Bartlett around whom the action dances. Yet she never looses track, and the reader is never confused and always entertained.
A Far Cry from Kensington
At the start of the novel we are introduced to the inhabitants of the Kensington rooming house, in particular to Milly, the landlady with a big heart, and to Wanda the Polish seamstress. Our narrator Mrs Hawkins still lies awake at night, sometimes thinking about the events she is about to relate. In those days she was everybody’s confidante because she appeared very unthreatening.
I was a war widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and a fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in ne. I looked comfortable. (6-7)
But it was exactly this Mrs Hawkins who told Hector Bartlett that he was a pisseur de copie– a very rude way of trying to dissuade him from pressing his awful writing on her. When he tells her that he takes great pains with his prose she comments,
He did indeed. The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity, and long, Latin-based words. (44)
[I was unfamiliar with the word tergiversations and had to look it up. It means ambiguities or evasions and is a Latin-based word.]
Hector Bartlett is offended by her description of him and as he is well connected he begins to plot his revenge on her. She looses two jobs in publishing because she refuses to back down from her assessment. The humour turns dark as Hector Bartlett continues his machinations, and at least two people die before the end of the story, and another flees to America.
Reading Muriel Spark
This is my fourth contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018 and I have come to understand that she was a very moral writer. In A Far Cry from Kensington she is concerned with integrity. She shows us the necessity of acting with integrity in one’s life and in one’s work. Many of the people in the novel do not act with integrity: they are fraudsters, con artists, over-indulgent parents, irresponsible young things, manipulated by others and so on. There are also many good people among her characters.
Her depiction of the publishing world in the 1950s, which she knew, reveals how few people care about the written word and how many of them are more concerned with their reputation, connections or just hanging on to their job. Hector (note the name) Bartlett and the people who espouse the radionics Box earn the grief that lands on them. She depicts Radionics as a kind of cult, preying on people’s weaknesses.
In A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark displays a consciousness about writing and good writing in particular. In the first place her main character works in publishing and is happiest editing text and preparing it for publication. Muriel Spark uses this device to offer advice about writing a good story. She suggests it should be undertaken as if writing privately to a friend and without thought of the general public. Not bad advice. And she makes frequent references to the events of the plot which is placed in the past, as if to provide shape and reflection upon the events, as a writer does.
By noting these aspects of the novel I by no means wish to deny the fun and vivacity of this novel. It’s a good read.
More Muriel Spark
A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, published in1988. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition 194pp. It has an introduction by Ali Smith.
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