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.