The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel 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.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

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. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of 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 wallpapers 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. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

55 thoughts on “The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

  1. hastanton

    I read this years ago ( following a BBC2 adaptation) I still have my old copy and have been vaguely planning a reread ….will definitely do so now !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had no idea there was a TV adaptation! I just looked it up. The cast includes Mary Tamm, Patricia Hodge and Miriam Margolyes – sounds excellent. I wonder if it’s available on DVD…

      I’m sure it would stand up to a re-read. It definitely feels like a multilayered book, one that would yield more on a second reading.

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    I’ve read two Muriel Spark novels this year and this definitely on my radar. I loved the boarding house setting of A Far Cry from Kensington so this one really appeals. The May of Teck? That’s an odd name.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! In the novel, the Club was founded by Queen Mary (Princess May of Teck) before her marriage to King George V. In effect, it’s a sort of hostel-cum-boarding house for young (and a few not so young) ladies of limited means. Like you, I often find myself drawn towards novels featuring a boarding house setting, partly for the microcosm of society they create. This is another fine example of the genre – I think you’d enjoy it a great deal.

      Reply
  3. Lady Fancifull

    Ah, I too read this years ago. I think it was a book at bedtime or similar at one point in Radio 4, and I heard extracts and was also captivated by that wonderful title. Definitely worth a re-read following your alluring review

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The title’s great, isn’t it? That was part of the appeal for me too. And how wonderful to discover that it has a double meaning – a very neat trick on Spark’s part, I thought.

      PS No worries about the rogue apostrophe. I’ve deleted it for you!

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Great review Jacqui! I really enjoyed this. I totally agree that Spark manages to cram so much into her slim novels. It never feels rushed or glossed-over, she just manages to write with such skilled economy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s so creative – her novels are full of interesting ideas and threads. That said, I sometimes wonder whether she tries to pack too much into a single novel. I definitely felt that with Memento Mori – much as I loved the central idea and main themes, a few of the more minor characters and subplots felt a little superfluous. It seemed to be less of an issue here – but even so, I’m not entirely sure I understood the whole Nicholas Farringdon plotline. Maybe it’s a book to revisit one day!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ll be interested to see what you think. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book and well worth picking up. In fact I have very fond memories of reading it which is always a good sign. It’s just a little niggle I have with Spark, this feeling that she might be trying to achieve too much in a single book. I probably need to read a few more just to get a better fix on this.

          Reply
  5. A Life in Books

    This does sound very appealing, a snapshot taken just as the country is coming to the end of a war which has changed life for many women. I might have to join you on that DVD hunt too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. I find this period so fascinating, a time of great social change. I could happily read about it all day. The TV adaptation sounds great, doesn’t it? According to wiki, there was another version in 1998 – a Radio 4 play this time. It would be interesting to track them down…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad you enjoyed it too! Isn’t the opening terrific? I couldn’t resist quoting it at the end of my review even though it meant extending the post well beyond the usual length for these things. I just knew I was in safe hands once I’d read that passage…

      Reply
  6. Tredynas Days

    Yet another of your posts, Jacqui, that anticipates what I intend reading at some point, so I’ll return to it. I’ve had MS recommended several times now so will certainly be adding her to the list. As for writing long posts – I’m a major culprit, I’m afraid.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Simon. We seem to share similar tastes in literature, especially when it comes to these women writers from the mid 20th century. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Spark whenever you get a chance to try her.

      Reply
  7. Sarah

    The only book I’ve read by Muriel Spark is ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, and judging by your review, it’s time I remedied that. I shall add this to my library check list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      While I liked Miss Jean Brodie, I didn’t love it. Maybe it’s not her best novel in spite of its reputation and standing in her oeuvre? (It’s certainly the best known) Mind you, it’s been several years since I read it so I could probably do with a refresher! This one, on the other hand, was great – surprisingly layered for such a slim volume.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Hill

        Yes, me too, I read and liked the Brodie, but it didn’t make me seek out any more by Spark. That changed when I read The Girls (which came to me by chance, via a freebie from The Folio Society, lucky me). After that I was on the lookout for Spark, though I regretted my next one, it was The Driver’s Seat, totally weird and nearly put me off (see https://anzlitlovers.com/category/writers-aust-nz-in-capitals/spark-muriel/). Then I read The Symposium and all was forgiven.
        Actually, now I come to think of it, Muriel Spark was a sort of euphemism used in my parents’ house, as in, ‘She’s a bit of a Muriel Spark’, meaning not that she was like the author, but rather someone pretentious who deserved to become a character pitilessly satirised in a Spark novel.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting to know, Lisa. The Driver’s Seat doesn’t particularly appeal to me – in fact the more I read about it the more unnerving it sounds! I’m beginning to wonder if I might be a bit hit-or-miss with Spark too. I didn’t get on with The Comforters when I tried it a few years ago – it started well, but then everything got a bit confusing as the story progressed. Memento Mori, on the other hand, felt like a different experience altogether. I thoroughly enjoyed that one – the humour was so sharp and incisive.

          Love the idea of someone being a bit of a Muriel Spark – I might have to borrow that saying at some point!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a pity. I’m not entirely sure I understood everything she was trying to achieve with the Nicholas Farringdon thread, but nevertheless I found it a very satisfying read.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’ve clicked with Spark before. Plus it’s very compact, so it wouldn’t take up too much of your time! Did you see the references to the BBC adaptation in some of the earlier comments? I think I’m going to try to track it down…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’ve only recently returned to her myself following a long hiatus. In some ways, I feel better placed to appreciate her brand of humour these days, especially now that I’ve read a few other women from this era – writers like Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald (although she came later than Spark). It’s quite difficult to talk about this one without getting into spoilers, isn’t it? I’m so glad you loved it too.

      Reply
  8. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I tried listening to Memento Mori a few weeks ago, but I didn’t like the narrator. It spoiled my willingness to read one of her books, so I am glad that this review has brought back some of my enthusiasm for this author. My library doesn’t have this one or Memento Mori in print, but I shall try Spark’s Loitering with Intent, which is as great a title as The Girls of Slender Means, in my opinion.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a shame about the audiobook. The tone of the narrator can make such a difference to the experience, can’t it? I caught a few episodes of Golden Hill on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime a couple of months ago, but I couldn’t stay the course with it in the end – partly as a result of the narrator and partly due to the novel’s style. (If I’m being completely honest, historical fiction is probably not my thing!) Nevertheless, I’m glad I have helped persuade you to give Spark another try. She is so worth it. Loitering with Intent is a great title, one that conjures up all sorts of interesting images – I’m sure the author has a lot of fun with it!

      Reply
  9. Guy Savage

    I have this one (along with a lot of other Spark titles) on the shelf. I didn’t care for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie much (thought it was ok but not much more) but loved A Far Cry from Kensington. I’ve read others and have been hit-and-miss with them, but I have a feeling this would be in the hit pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would be fascinated to hear what you think of it, Guy. I think you’d get a kick out of the setting, it certainly feels like your kind of thing. I have a copy of A Far Cry from Kensington is on the pile – good to hear that it was a hit with you.

      Reply
  10. Annabel (gaskella)

    Lovely review. I love the quote about the dress! I always enjoy Muriel Spark and liked this one a lot too. As always there are no words wasted, she manages to get so much into so few pages.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel. It’s a great passage, isn’t it? I loved the idea of the posh gown being passed around from one girl to another, like some kind of lucky charm for their dates. They mustn’t have had anything else to wear when going out to dinner! I really enjoyed this one, especially the scenes in the May of Teck – it’s a great setting for a story.

      Reply
  11. Richard

    Hi Jacqui. I read this a few years ago and liked it quite a bit less than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (of course, unlike you, that’s by far my favorite Spark so far). However, I still liked it quite a lot and agree with you that it’s “deceptively light” before it gets heavy. Spark is always memorable with her one-liners, too: “this shepherd of the best prime mutton,” a description of the not totally godly clergyman in this novel, still makes me laugh!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Richard, it’s really good to hear from you. Isn’t it funny how some novels (and writers) seem to divide people? I get the feeling that this is the case with Spark as her style can take a bit of getting used to. I didn’t get on with The Comforters when I tried it a few years ago, but I fared much better with this one (and with Memento Mori which I read last year). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was an early read for me, so maybe I was just too young to fully appreciate it at the time. I do remember liking it, but not enough to go on to follow through with any of her other novels at that time. Maybe I should try it again one day. You’re right about the one-liners. She is so sharp when it comes to these little insights into character – there are some good ones about Joanna too!

      Reply
  12. bookbii

    Excellent review Jacqui; I love how Spark has the ability to skewer whatever her target it with a few neat little words, both in terms of characterisation and satirising the hypocrisies of society. The Girls of Slender Means is one I haven’t read yet, though it sounds like it is one of Spark’s at her best. Love the quotes you’ve extracted here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, she is certainly very sharp and incisive – her observations seem spot-on. The quotes are great, aren’t they? I’m glad you like them. It’s a very interesting book, full of different threads and layers. I think you would enjoy it, especially if you’re looking to try some more fiction.

      Reply
  13. 1streading

    So pleased to see you promoting Spark, one of my favourite writers.I love the way she uses limited settings such as the club in her early novels – it’s no wonder she wrote her own version of Robinson Crusoe!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      After a couple of false starts, I think I’m finally beginning to ‘get’ her now. That sly brand of humour takes a little getting used to, especially when it’s combined with touches of poignancy, something that make these novels feel so textured. I loved the setting in this one — it’s very well done. Mind you, any novel set in a 1940s boarding house is going to catch my attention. As you know by now, it’s definitely my kind of territory!

      Reply
  14. Elena

    I have never read anything by Muriel Sparks, but as usual your review is reminding me to explore an author whose name rings a bell but I haven’t read yet, mainly because of the female-centric story. Also, I love the cover (I feel I’m always saying this about your books).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like her, Elena. She’s very strong on characterisation both male and female – and the women are often centre-stage in her stories. I think this would make a good introduction to her style.

      Reply
  15. nicholasjlennox

    I love Muriel Spark and you have now inspired me to re read her! The Girls of Slender Means is one I haven’t read yet, though it sounds like it is one of Spark’s at her best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear! I have had mixed experiences with Spark, but this one really hit the spot for me. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I did. The period detail felt very convincing.

      Reply
  16. DevBlog

    I love Muriel Spark and you have now inspired me to re read her!
    Love the idea of someone being a bit of a Muriel Spark – I might have to borrow that saying at some point!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Seamus. Yes, a most enjoyable read, wonderfully evocative of the era. I think I’m beginning to get into the groove with her now. Good to know that it’s one of your favourites.

      Reply

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