Tag Archives: The Girls of Slender means

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

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease enter your email address in the box.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, Reviews

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

We know we are in for an interesting read when we find this near the start of the novel:

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (9)

The time is 1945. The ‘savage’ girls live in the May of Teck Club which exists for

The Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years …(9)

This is my second contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. Memento Mori had older people as its subjects while The Girls of Slender Means are young. I plan to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work – she wrote 22 novels – in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of The Girls of Slender Means

The events in the Club in Kensington occur between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, but also at a later date. A number of young women live in the Club, on the lower floors in dormitories but increasing in social standing as the accommodation rises to the fourth floor. There are many young women, and our attention is drawn in particular to Selina the beautiful one, Jane the fat one doing ‘brain’ work and Joanna who, having failed in love has come to London and teaches elocution. Joanna recites poetry throughout. There are lesser characters, such as the older women including Greggie who manages the garden and claims there is an UXB buried there.

The young women are obsessed with having a good time now and expect their futures, with suitable young men, to come along in due course.

Love and money were the vital themes in all the bedrooms and dormitories. (26)

Men are attracted to the hostel. Nicholas Farringdon is a poet philosopher ne’er-do-well. We learn that after the events of the novel he converted to Catholicism and martyred in Haiti. This is reported by Jane to one of the other survivors of the disaster at the May of Teck Cub.

Jane is employed by a dodgy publisher to write letters to authors so that he can sell their replies. You know he is dodgy because he changes his name every two years and has abandoned two of his three wives. Jane’s activities are referred to, by her, as brain work. Her employer asks her to investigate Farringdon and so he comes to the Club and falls for Selina. None of the young women really have a handle on the world, and they are too naïve to know it. Jane, for example, naïve in 1945, is really on the make as much as her publisher boss. In the later time frame of the novel, after Farringdon’s death, we find she is collecting material for a feature on him.

There is a role for a Schiaparelli dress, passed around the young women for various activities and stolen by Selina under cover of the chaos of the building as it collapses.

And there is a part for a skylight out onto a flat roof. The girls are forbidden to use it, but some of the most slender are able to slip through the opening, others have to smear their bodies with cold cream or margarine. It is the focus of the climax of the novel.

Some reactions

I really enjoyed Muriel Sparks’s spikey style. Her descriptions of people nearly always include a twist, undercutting what on the surface.

Her description of war-battered London is a marvel of compression. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wall-papers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (7)

And the novel ends with the words ‘long ago in 1945’ (142). The focus is on the poverty of spirit of the young women emphasised in those not so far off days.

A review in the New York Times in 1963 by Virgilia Peterson points to the qualities of this novel, at the time of its publication.

A review that captures the social nuances of the May of Teck Club can be found on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (from July 2017).

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963) Penguin 142pp

More Muriel Spark

The first of my contributions to #ReadingMuriel2018 was Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I read the Virago version.

In May/June I will read and report on a novel by Muriel Spark from the ‘70s. Any recommendations?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

What shall I do with the drunken story?

My short story is drunk and I don’t know what to do with it. Back when I merely dabbled in writing, I believed that my first version was it – a polished version straight off. Nowadays I have moved far, far away from this. I find it hard to stop editing. I usually tell myself to stop when I find myself checking the commas. But between the first version and that final comma, that’s where my problems lie.

It’s in its first draft this story. It is a kind of drunken version of what I imagined. Sober characters lurch about in the 2000 words, horizons shift with each paragraph, and people in the background are too loud.

I have five weeks to fix it. To start with, I could put it in the drawer with my novel (see previous post). Just for a week. But if I do that I think my novel would be so disgusted it would climb out and I wouldn’t see it again. I think I need to have a go at the draft and sort it out.

Can I get it to stand upright, or in other words, is there a story here?

There is a good strong idea, which also happens to have a good image at the core of the story. I have a narrative, but it feels choppy. So I need to check this: narrative + good idea = story?

To fix the narrative I could apply the famous eight point story arc. But I’d get squiffy thinking about stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. In fact I could use many of the 2000 words just arcing the thing.

I prefer to use the fairy story spine. You know, once upon a time there was a young woman called Tilly, who had lived with her aunt and uncle since her mother was killed in the Blitz. One day Tilly meets Henry and falls in love … So far so good. Because of that … Something a little bad needs to happen. It does. Then something really bad happens. It does. Until finally … And then Tilly finds she has obtained more than she expected but not what she originally wanted and she’s the better for it. They all live happily ever after (except Henry). I found the story spine idea in Jurgen Wolff’s useful book Your Writing Coach on p95.

I need to know Tilly a little better. It’s her story. I like to use character questionnaires to find out all those things that help imagine the character: big things like how old she is, the colour of her eyes, and little things like, what does she always have with her? And what gesture does she use? It helps that I like Tilly. I could use Jenny Alexander’s five points suggested on her blog Writing in the House of Dreams: name, appearance, something they love, and hate, a special object. What does this character keep in their pocket, a suggestion in a comment.

And I need to do the same with Henry. I’m not so keen on Henry. But he deserves to be authentic and full-bodied, all the same.

And I need to do a little more research on that period immediately after World War II. That wont be a hardship as I love researching, and that period is of great interest to me. I’ve just reread The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark, and noticed that she locates her short novel very precisely between VE and VJ Days. I need bomb damage and shortages and – you’ve heard this word recently – austerity. I must check out the details.

camay

And then I can start on the adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs, in a close edit. I found the ideas of Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages, very helpful in this respect. After all, a short story is the first five pages.

OK, the story feels a little less drunk. Now what next?

Well, of course, I could go and pour myself a drink and get going.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing