The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella, especially the first half. It’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view.

Central to the narrative is young Dougal Douglas who, on his arrival in Peckham from Scotland, sets about wreaking havoc on the community, disturbing the residents’ lives in the most insidious of ways.

As the novella opens, people are discussing an aborted wedding involving Dixie Morse, a typist at Meadows, Meade & Grindley (a local textiles’ factory), and Humphrey Place, a refrigerator engineer. Some three weeks’ earlier, Humphrey had said ‘no’ at the altar, walking out on Dixie and a church full of guests.  

Spark is very skilled in her use of dialogue to convey the story, a technique that gives the novella a sense of closeness or immediacy, almost as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. The saga of Dixie’s abandonment is relayed through gossip at the pub, with various locals chipping in, adding their two pennies’ worth to the anecdote as it passes along.

The barmaid said: ‘It was only a few weeks ago. You saw it in the papers. That chap who left the girl at the altar, that’s him. She lives up the Grove. Crewe by name.’

One landlady out of a group of three said, ‘No, she’s a Dixie Morse. Crewe’s the stepfather. I know because she works at Meadows Meade in poor Miss Coverdale’s pool that was. Miss Coverdale told me about her. The fellow had a good position as a refrigerator engineer.’

‘Who was the chap that hit him?’

Some friend of the girl’s, I daresay.’
‘Old Lomas’s boy. Trevor by name. Electrician. He was best man at the wedding.’

‘There was I,’ sang out an old man who was visible with his old wife on the corner bench over in the public bar, ‘waiting at the church, waiting at the church.’

His wife said nothing nor smiled. (p. 11–12)

There is a general feeling amongst the locals that Dixie would never have been jilted at the altar if Dougal Douglas had not come to Peckham in the first place.

Rewinding the timeline by a few months, we see Dougal arriving at Peckham’s Meadows, Meade & Grindley, where he is taken on by one of the managers, Mr Druce, to develop a vision for the employees. Absenteeism has become a problem at the factory, and Mr Druce believes that Dougal – an Arts man by education – is clearly the man to deal with it. Dougal, however, is a wily individual at heart. Consequently, he insists that extensive field research must be conducted to take the pulse of the people of Peckham before any reports on the issue can be submitted. In reality, this is merely an excuse for Dougal to do very little actual work; instead, he spends his time chatting up various woman at the factory, encouraging them to take Mondays off for the good of their health (ahem).

Alongside stirring things up at the factory, Dougal also manages to befriend Humphrey, Dixie’s fiancé – a development that happens purely by chance as both men are renting rooms at Miss Frierne’s boarding house in Peckham.

Dougal’s encounters with others are often characterised by a palpable undercurrent of sexual tension; this is particularly true of his interactions with Merle Coverdale, Dixie’s somewhat formidable yet vulnerable boss. For several years, thirty-seven-year-old Miss Coverdale has been trapped in an unfulfilling affair with the married Mr Druce; and as such, she is ripe for some attention, quickly succumbing to Dougal and his seductive charms. Dougal even has an influence on relations between Dixie and Humphrey in this respect, adding to the sexual charge between the couple, albeit indirectly.

‘You’re getting too sexy,’ she [Dixie] said. ‘It’s through you having to do with Dougal Douglas. He’s a sex maniac. I was told. He’s immoral.’

‘He isn’t,’ Humphrey said.

‘Yes he is, he talks about sex quite open, at any time of the day. Girls and sex.’

‘Why don’t you relax like you used to do?’ he said.

‘Not unless you give up that man. He’s putting ideas in your head.’

‘You’ve done plenty yourself to put ideas in my head,’ he said. ‘I didn’t used to need to look far to get ideas, when you were around. Especially up in the cupboard.’

‘Repeat that, Humphrey.’

‘Lie down and relax.’

‘Not after what you said. It was an insult.’ (pp. 56–57)

Once again, Spark draws on the effective use of conversations – this time between the factory workers – to move the narrative along. By doing this, she cleverly reveals how Dougal is considered to be ‘different’ or ‘funny’ by many of those around him. (In the following passage, Dixie is talking to Connie Weedin, daughter of Dougal’s immediate boss in Personnel.)

[Connie:] ‘My dad says he’s nuts. Supposed to be helping my dad to keep the factory sweet. But my dad says he don’t do much with all his brains and his letters. But you can’t help but like him. He’s different.’

[Dixie] ‘He goes out with the factory girls. He goes out with Elaine Kent that was process-controller. She’s gone to Drover Willis’s. He goes out with her ladyship [Miss Coverdale] too.’

‘You don’t say?’

‘I do say. He better watch out for Mr Druce if it’s her ladyship he’s after.’

‘Watch out – her ladyship’s looking this way.’ (p. 71)

While some people like Dougal, others – such as Dixie – clearly don’t. Nevertheless, virtually everyone views him as somewhat unusual or atypical from the norm, a quality that adds a certain something to the young man’s persona.

As the story plays out, it becomes increasingly barbed and surreal. There are instances of duplicity, blackmail, mental breakdown and tragedy, all seemingly orchestrated by Dougal – once again, indirectly.  

The setting – a South London borough in the 1960s – is captured to a T. It’s the sort of community where everyone is desperate to know everyone else’s business, the pubs and shops alive with gossip and rumour.

In Dougal Douglas, Spark has created one of her most sinister characters, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you like Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll appreciate this.   

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

51 thoughts on “The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

  1. madamebibilophile

    I absolutely loved this. I think it’s my favourite of the Sparks I’ve read. Totally bonkers and really dark! I really enjoyed your review Jacqui, it’s brought it back to me & I should have a re-read.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Delighted to hear that you enjoyed it too. It reminded me a bit of The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, another of your favourites, I think? There’s a similar sense of disruption in the narrative, especially towards the end!

  2. Bob Pyper

    Another sharp review, Jacqui. This is one of my Spark favourites. The charismatic yet sinister and devilish Dougal … The other characters are typical Spark portraits of flawed humankind. She sees us as we are, I think!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Bob! Yes, I think she does have an ability to home in on the dark sides of humanity, exposing the less appealing facets of our personalities for everyone to see. Charismatic yet sinister is the perfect description for Dougal Douglas, and he uses that air of charm to such devastating effect. As a character, I found him frightening yet utterly believable – very much to Spark’s credit, I think!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I like her best when she goes down this route. There’s a definite sense of everything going off the rails here, especially towards the end. :-)

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Of the Spark novels I’ve picked up, that’s the only one to have defeated me. I’ve tried reading it a couple of times but without much success. It’s definitely worth you trying another. Have you read Memento Mori? That’s probably my favourite, although Peckham and Driver’s run it fairly close.

  3. Radz Pandit

    This sounds excellent Jacqui! I loved The Driver’s Seat, so will bump this up the pile. Spark’s world is truly bizarre, unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll enjoy this one, especially given your fondness for Driver’s. As you say, Spark has a very particular way of viewing the world; on the one hand, it’s skewed or off-kilter, and yet somehow it all feels strangely recognisable too. I don’t know how she manages to marry those two aspects together, but she does…

  4. Brian Joseph

    Great review. I like the way that you quoted that piece of conversation to high light Spark’s writing style and ability to develop character.

    I have been meaning to give Spark’s books a try for awhile now.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. The way Spark uses dialogue is very effective here, carefully revealing certain aspects of the narrative through conversations and hearsay. It’s almost worth reading from a technical perspective alone.

  5. Anokatony

    ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ is one of my Muriel Spark favorites, but my all-time Muriel Spark favorite is ‘Girls of Slender Means’.
    As you say, her use of dialogue is skilled and marvelous.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really like The Girls of Slender Means, too. What a wonderful opening paragraph that book has, so evocative of the period and setting!

  6. buriedinprint

    I’ve read a few of hers, but not this one. And it does sound like it’s oozing with atmosphere. Funny, because even though I distinctly feel as though her prose moves along at a quick clip, I don’t think of her as depending on dialogue for that very often. So either it’s there, but not necessarily as prominent as it is in this volume, or I’ve just remembered it otherwise? This would have made a perfect selection for my calendar page for London in February!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The use of dialogue seems to be particularly noticeable in this, partly because it opens in the middle of a conversation, plunging the reader into the midst of a confrontation. The two first two lines are:
      ‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said.
      ‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said.
      (‘She’ being Dixie’s mum, Mavis, and ‘he’ being Humphrey, Dixie’s intended.)
      So, right from the start Spark is revealing key aspects of the story through dialogue – at this point we know that something must have kicked off, although we don’t know quite what (not yet, anyway). In the hands of a lesser writer, this might seem somewhat muddled or confusing, but Spark manages to pull it off with great skills and aplomb. It really is very impressive indeed!

      I’m trying to think if she uses a similar technique in any of her other novels. Telephone conversations definitely play a role in Memento Mori, and there are probably dialogue-heavy sections in some of her others too, but maybe not to this extent!

  7. heavenali

    I liked this one, though it isn’t among my favourites. You’re right about the use of dialogue in this novel, it plays such an important part, and Spark gets it just right. I am overdue reading another Spark, I do enjoy her strange, off kilter world.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting. I loved it, but I can also see why it might not be a favourite for some. Irrespective of that, one has to admire the creativity and inventiveness on display here. Once again, Spark has given us an insight into her view of the world, complete with all its perils and uncertainties.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s very tempting to make that assumption. That said, William Boyd, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, refutes that suggestion. While he admits ‘there is indubitably something ‘devilish’ about Dougal’s powerful and destabilising charm’, he feels that ‘to see Dougal as a devil or devilish sprite leading the good but dull people of Peckham astray is a red herring’. The world of Peckham Rye ‘is too concrete, too lived and felt’ for that… An interesting view!

  8. kimbofo

    This is one I haven’t read yet though it has been in my TBR for at least a decade! I really want to read it now thanks to your review but my copy is in London and goodness knows when I will ever be able to go back and retrieve it. I think a library trip may be in order.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll love this, Kim. It’s dark and twisted and just a little bit nutty (in the best possible sense). I hope you manage to get hold of a copy very soon!

  9. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    My favourite Spark, so funny and dark and dialogue driven. I really ought to re-read it, as I discovered it pre-blog, but it has stayed with me and you’ve reminded me of all that stirring DD does.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, I can see why this might be a favourite of yours. It reminded me quite a bit of Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing with the descent into chaos as it careens towards the end…

  10. Liz

    I can’t believe I still haven’t read any MS – I really must put that right some time. What would you recommend as the first place to start?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is excellent, but possibly somewhat atypical of Spark’s style in general. Definitely worth reading though, for the complexity of characterisation alone. (Jean Brodie is a marvellous creation – seductive and dangerous in fairly equal measure.) As for Spark’s surreal, darkly comic works, I’d suggest Memento Mori as being a good one to start with. It was the gateway drug for me, the one that really clicked in terms of style and tone.

  11. 1streading

    This is certainly one of my favourite Sparks. Dougal is a bit like Brodie – at first he’s difficult not to like but as the novel progresses you begin to see how dangerous he is!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, I hadn’t thought of that comparison until you mentioned it, but now that you have I can see where you’re coming from. Like Brodie, Dougal is such a complex character, a blend of the irresistibly seductive and the downright dangerous. That sense of power he wields over his charges…it’s really quite alarming!

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  13. Simon T

    Great review and great novel! She is so good at sinister. Well, she’s good at everything. I agree with your comment above that Memento Mori is a great place to start.

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