Category Archives: Spark Muriel

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.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Without going into all the details, it’s probably fair to say that my previous encounters with Muriel Spark have been a little mixed. Nevertheless, given how enthusiastic several of my blogging friends are about this author, I’ve been meaning to give her another try for a while. Having just finished Memento Mori, I think I am finally beginning to see what there is to love about Spark, in particular her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. Judging by this book alone, she was quite a writer.

spark

First published in 1959, Memento Mori focuses on the lives of a group of English ladies and gentlemen in their seventies and eighties, all of whom are linked by family ties, social connections and various secrets reaching back over the previous fifty years. As the novel opens, we learn that Dame Lettie Colston (one of the central characters in the book) has been on the receiving end of a sequence of mysterious phone calls from an unknown male caller. Each time the message is the same: ‘Remember you must die.’  The police seem of little help in the matter, and the nuisance calls continue. Another more conventional writer would have used this set-up as the basis for a mystery novel, focusing on the incidents themselves and the search for the perpetrator. However, Spark does something much more interesting with this idea, using it instead as a means of exposing the behaviours of various members of the group, exploring a range of social issues such as class, ageing and our attitudes to mortality.

While Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey shows some concern for his sister’s welfare, he has pressing problems of his own to deal with. His elderly wife, the once-famous author Charmian Piper, is now in need of care as she is exhibiting signs of dementia. Much of the joy of this novel comes from the acerbic exchanges between the various members of this family, the delightful Charmian being especially prone to mixing everything up in her mind. Here’s a brief extract from one of their conversations.

‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.

‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.

‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.

‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’

‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine. (pp. 5-6)

Towards the end of that quote, Spark touches on one of the novel’s recurring themes, namely the different characters’ observations on the process of ageing. Godfrey is proud to be in control of all his faculties, and as such he has a tendency to measure himself against his various friends and peers. Another member of the group, the gerontologist Alec Warner, makes a habit of covertly studying each of his elderly acquaintances by way of an amenable third party (Olive, granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering), recording intimate details about them on a series of coded index cards. He seems strangely obsessed with every aspect of their behaviour as a means assessing their mental and physical health.

While Memento Mori is not a traditional plot-driven novel, several developments happen along the way to keep the reader entertained. At an early stage in the story, Lisa Brooke, a long-standing acquaintance of Godfrey and Charmian, passes away, leaving a significant inheritance to be settled. Her former carer, the poisonous but highly capable Mrs Pettigrew, is staking her claim on the estate, as are the remaining members of Lisa’s family and her estranged husband, Guy Leet. While the details of Lisa’s will are being investigated, Mrs Pettigrew accepts a role as Charmian’s carer, thereby creating all manner of mischief and tension within the Colston household. There are some priceless exchanges between Mrs P and Mrs Anthony, Godfrey and Charmian’s housekeeper – too long to quote here in detail, they are tremendously well-observed. The sly and cunning Mrs Pettigrew isn’t above a spot of blackmail either. She recognises several weaknesses in Godfrey, most notably his strong sense of male pride and his penchant for the occasional dalliance here and there. As such, she sets out to use these flaws in his character to her advantage.

One of the most enjoyable things about this novel is Spark’s portrayal of the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian. There is a very interesting dynamic here. As Charmian starts to rally, her mind improving and sharpening over the winter months, Godfrey finds himself experiencing a corresponding decline. It is almost as though Charmian’s spirits have to wither before Godfrey’s can bloom. As it turns out, Godfrey has always been a little resentful of his wife’s success as a novelist. In some ways he seems to enjoy bullying Charmian, treating her as a helpless child whose memory cannot be trusted. There is a wonderful scene where Charmian makes an afternoon tea all on her own while Godfrey and the others are out. Nevertheless, on their return neither Godfrey nor Mrs Pettigrew is willing to believe Charmian, Mrs P deliberately lying in the process as a means of putting her charge in her place. I love this next passage where Charmian begins to question her sense of duty to Godfrey.

She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know. (p. 125)

Interestingly, there is another strand within the novel, one in which the quietly tragic rubs up against the darkly comic. Charmian’s former maid and carer, Jean Taylor, now resides in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. This thread allows Spark to convey a different set of emotions, namely the loss of independence and sense of humiliation one may well experience on entering such a place.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought her an injection. (p. 10)

The other grannies in Jean Taylor’s ward provide some comic moments to balance the poignancy, obsessed as they are with the constant rewriting of their wills and the search through the horoscopes for signs of good news.

Spark also uses this element of the story to pass comment on a range of social issues. Before she entered the hospital, Jean Taylor had longed to move to a private nursing home in Surrey; but Godfrey (her employer at the time) had quibbled about the cost, preferring instead to extol the virtues of the new and progressive free hospitals with their advanced standards of care. This would not do for Godfrey himself of course; instead, this distinguished gentleman imagines himself spending his final years in a nice hotel, possibly somewhere like the establishment in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

By the end of this marvellous novel, virtually all of the main players in the group will have received one of the mysterious telephone calls with the message ‘remember you must die’. Astute readers may have guessed the true identity of the caller by now, but if not, all will be revealed in the closing stages of the story. In Memento Mori, Spark has delivered a sharp yet moving tragi-comedy about the nature of ageing, one that might just provide us with a timely reminder of our own mortality and the need to treat each other with compassion while we’re still here.

Memento Mori is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.