Tag Archives: The Abbess of Crewe

Some Monstrous Women in Books

Monstrous women appear in many novels, including those written by women. Some are redeemed, and some are defeated and one or two even triumph. A few are the main character. They all help the plot along in some way. I note that men can be monstrous too, but when they behave as these women do it appears insignificant. 

For this post I present some books that include monstrous women, with links to my reviews on Bookword.

Unredeemed

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957)

Angel is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce). Her publisher says that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

Flora in The Soul of Kindness, also by Elizabeth Taylor, (1964) has a magnificent unawareness and entitlement that drives people to death, unsuitable marriage and misery. We all know someone like Flora, attractive, without insight or self-awareness, but yet she is everybody’s favourite. Perhaps we even want to be her friend, because some of her lustre might rub off on us. Elizabeth Taylor shows us the damage such creatures can create.

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood (1977)

The narrator is sent to stay with her great-grandmother and finds the experience horrific. The old lady had a toxic upbringing imbued with Victorian middleclass values. She imposes on her young relative the rigid formality, the meeting of the expectations of others, the refusal to express emotions, the belief in her own righteousness, all from that upbringing.

And these get their come-uppance

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

We learn that Lady Catherine de Bourgh ‘was extremely indignant’ at the marriage of her nephew, Mr Darcy, to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, ‘and she gave way to all the genuine frankness of her character’. She had paid a warning visit to Elizabeth in which she told the young woman,

‘Miss Bennet, you ought to know that I am not to be trifled with. But however insincere you may choose to be, you will not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from it.’ 

Her abusive language to her nephew severed relations for a while, eventually smoothed over by Elizabeth.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) 335

Few women live in the imagination as strongly as Mrs Danvers, in contrast to the meek second never-named wife of Max de Winter. The housekeeper resents the new wife and seems to own Manderley in the absence of the first Mrs de Winter. As a character she is a brilliant invention. But I wonder how the reader is so easily convinced of Max’s innocence, and how much that is a reaction to Mrs Danvers’s creepy and threatening presence.

Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark (1974) 

Mocking the great, is what Muriel Spark is about in this novel that is a parody of Richard Nixon’s downfall. Sister Alexandra, in white, corrupts and exploits the other sisters, in black. She records everything and is wittily exposed in this novel.

Beowulf

Grendel’s mother in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is portrayed as an ignorant hag-like creature, living in a pool of water-snakes, scarcely able to communicate with her son. Maddened by the death of her son at the hands of the first superhero, she is defeated in turn in her own cave. There is an alternative feminist version to this misogyny: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) 

Jane’s aunt, Mrs Sarah Reed, resents the necessity for her orphaned niece to join her household and treats her very badly and banishes her to Lowood Hall School.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple (1943)

Three sisters are contrasted in this novel. One of these is Vera who is so beautiful that every door is opened to her, all difficulty smoothed out of her way, all misdemeanours forgiven, until she becomes middle-aged. She treats her husband with flagrant unkindness, and when he leaves her, looks round for another admirer. Her nemesis is age, and she is forced to face her weaknesses when her niece replaces her in a young man’s attentions. Vera is too weak to give up the young man and they run away to a life of more unhappiness in South Africa.

Hidden Qualities

Some apparently horrendous women are revealed to have hidden qualities.

 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008) 

In the first volume of short stories of Olive Kitteridge, the former schoolteacher is revealed as a very flawed individual. But in the second volume, Olive, Again (2010), she has become quite sympathetic, perhaps because we understand her more. Is this the Dirty Den syndrome, whereby the audience loves a baddie if they experience enough of them?

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987) 

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Emerence acts as housekeeper to a novelist, choses her clients and behaves in what appears to be a high-handed even predatory manner, intimidating her clients and her neighbours. She is not so much redeemed as explained in this magnificent Hungarian novel. 

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)

Mrs Fisher is definitely saved in this much-loved novel about four ill-assorted women who spend a month together in an Italian castle. She is saved through Italian sunshine and the sunny disposition of Lotty.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)

And now, meet Big Madam as 14-year-old Adunni meets her in Lagos.

The cool air inside the car is escaping with a strong flower smell as somebody is climbing out. First thing I am seeing is feets. Yellow feets, black toes. There is different colour paint on all the toenails: red, green, purple, orange, gold. The smallest of the toes is having a gold ring on it. Her whole body is almost filling the whole compound as she is coming out. I am now understanding why they are calling her Big Madam. When she come out, she draw deep breath and her chest, wide like a blackboard, is climbing up and down, up and down. It is as if this woman is using her nostrils to be collecting all the heating from the outside and making us be catching cold. I am standing beside Mr Kola, and his body is shaking like my own. Even the trees in the compound, the yellow, pink, blue flowers in the long flower pot, all of them are shaking. (122)

Big Madam enslaves Adunni, to work in her house, and to live in a shack in the compound. Adunni is valued by many of the people she meets, who help her achieve her ambitions – to do with the ‘louding’ voice – and to which Big Madam must eventually accede. 

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (2010)

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky (2019)

Both novels were translated from the German by Tim Mohr

In both books there is a monstrous, interfering and overwhelming grandmother. Both behave in underhand and shocking ways, with lack of consideration for others. They are stories about unconditional love that is expressed in curious and sometimes hilarious ways.

Not yet categorised as monstrous

Guard your Daughters by Dorothy Tutton (1953)

The mother in this novel exerts control and limits her five daughter’s experiences to her own advantage. Is she monstrous?

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (1969)

The main character challenges many conventions about women, maternal feelings, obsession with appearance, desire to marry, and independent wealth. I am not sure I understand what the author was doing with this unlikely character, but I believe she is not monstrous.

You may have your own suggestions of monstrous female characters to add to this list?

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The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

‘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?

This is my third contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. You will also find reviews of Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means on this blog.

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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