Re-discovering Muriel Spark
I would probably count Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington amongst my favourite novels. It is at once a brilliant study of human character, a rather neat critique of society, and a great story. It was also the first Spark I ever read, and I was excited by this new literary discovery. Unfortunately, for me, the next couple of her novels that I read didn’t quite live up to the splendour of A Far Cry From Kensington. Symposium was an enjoyable enough read, but the characters, seen only over the course of one evening, failed to make an impact and I quickly forgot it once I had finished. The Public Image, on the other hand, was quite an affecting read, with its themes of insecurity and duplicity. However, I ultimately found it somewhat one-dimensional, almost as though, in choosing to focus on a theme, Spark had overlooked the need for fully developed characters and setting. I know that it was shortlisted for the Booker prize the year after its publication in 1969, though, so I’m quite open to someone telling me I’ve missed something.
And so I left Spark for a while, mainly in favour of Margaret Drabble, who became my go to for what I would probably describe as ‘human experience’ novels.
There is an online reading group on the Guardian website, which I occasionally dip into. (I am incredibly middle class, I know, for which I can only apologise, in a true middle-class manner.) The online reading group told me that February 2018 marked the centenary of Spark’s birth, and so one of her novels would be chosen as the group’s book for February. Readers were invited to make suggestions, and a couple of articles were published. The ensuing debate below the line reminded me of how much I loved A Far Cry From Kensington, and how embarrassingly poorly read I was when it came to her other novels, particularly some of the early ones for which she is perhaps best known. And so I went promptly to Waterstones and bought The Girls of Slender Means.
Like many of Spark’s novels, The Girls of Slender Means is short, perhaps little more than a novella, and would be easy to read in the course of a single day. Some novels are great to read like that, others burn more slowly and you need to allow them to sink in. For me, this is one of the latter. I dipped in and out of The Girls of Slender Means over a week, which gave it time to float around and settle in my head.
The story is set in London in 1945, just after the end of the war, although it is framed, flashback-style, by conversations taking place between the characters in the ‘present day’ (presumably some 15 years later, in the early 1960s, when the novel was published).The setting is the May of Teck Club, a tall house providing dormitory accommodation for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. The main characters all reside at the Club, and it is this shared experience which binds them all together, despite their differences.
The novel opens with tragic news being shared between the characters, now scattered in their separate lives, in a brief ‘present-day’ scene. This has little impact on the story, but hangs over it like a dark cloud, encouraging you to look for clues about what is to come. Until the final few pages and the novel’s dramatic denouement, very little action actually comes to pass, but in the characters comings, goings, and dealings with each other you start to feel that you are experiencing the depth of their lives, with all the privations and aspirations almost unique to these few months in British history.
With almost the entirety of the novel being set inside the Club, the house is brought to life through the descriptions of its living conditions and how those who live there adapt to them. Sound is a big part of this experience: the prose is peppered with lines and stanzas from classic poetry, overheard by the characters being recited by the character Joanna, who gives elocution lessons in her room. The sound of the wireless, and the “background echo of voices” also drift frequently through the house, distracting Jane (“fat but intellectually glamorous by virtue of the fact that she worked for a publisher”) who tries to concentrate on her ‘brain-work’. Even detail of the new (and unpopular) brown wallpaper is crammed into less than 150 pages of novel, thanks in no small part to Spark’s sparse yet perfectly precise prose style, which is so easy to read and yet, you suspect, requires quite a skill to actually write.
I really enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means. It’s length is deceptive: there is a lot going on and you are left feeling very close to the characters and intertwined in their lives. Despite its light, straightforward style, there is a dark undertone throughout and the final scenes have left the novel well and truly ingrained in my mind.
At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.