Spark, Muriel. The Girls of Slender Means.

NY: Knopf, 1963.

Spark was considered one of the major influences on British fiction in the post-World War II years, but I’ve never been quite sure how I feel about the body of her work. She had one really big hit, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was equally successful as a film (starring the ineffable Maggie Smith), but nothing else she produced ever really seemed to come up to that level.

Her specialty was the short novel and this one, which comes about one-third of the way through her nearly fifty-year career, is typical and also (apparently) one of her better efforts. The setting is the May of Teck Club in the Kensington district of London during 1945, a long-time hostel “for the pecuniary convenience and social protection of ladies of slender means below the age of thirty years” living and working in London. (Spark lived in a similar residence while working for Military Intelligence during that same period, following a failed marriage in Rhodesia.) The younger girls — almost never called “women” — live in a dormitory on the lower floor while the older, more senior ones share bedrooms on the upper floors. The top-floor bathroom has a casement window that allows access to the flat roof — as long as one’s hip measurement doesn’t exceed 36¼ inches — and which figures in the story as a meeting place for illicit relationships with men.

There are a number of vicars’ daughters among the residents, as well as Joanne, an elocution student and teacher, Jane, a rather unattractive secretary to a very small-time publisher with an overdeveloped sense of her own place in the world of books, Selina, the club’s resident sexpot and owner of the Schiaparelli gown they all share, a couple of young women of shaky sanity, and three older ladies who are far too old to live at the May of Teck according to the rules, but who have been there so long no one knows how to get rid of them. Then there are the men with connections to the club, including George, the publisher, who changes his name every few years (just in case) and who must always be one up over the authors he handles, Charles, a foreigner of indeterminate background, and Nicholas Farringdon, the pivot around which the book’s plot rotates. Insofar as there is a plot. Nicholas is a poet and anarchist intellectual with a personal interest in several of the girls at the May of Teck (though he’s not the only man apparently smitten with the club in general).

In the very sketchy frame story (fifteen years after the war), Nicholas has become a Jesuit and has just been murdered by a mob in Haiti, and the various surviving characters pass the word around, though they all seem more concerned with what present use they might make of the information. Why did Nicholas become a priest? Well, there was a tragedy at the club shortly before VJ Day and subsequent reviewers and critics of the book have mostly assumed a cause-and-effect relationship there — but I don’t see it, really. In fact, as in most of Spark’s books, the story itself is pretty thin and the style (also as in all of this author’s works) is heavily elliptical. There’s not even very much in the way of action until the very end. It seems to consist mostly of extended but relatively superficial character sketches which leave the reader to guess at what’s happening and at the relationships among the players. With observations on life in London late in the war sort of thrown in. I’ve read a number of this author’s works over the years, including the two that were shortlisted for (but did not win) the Booker Prize, and my reaction to all of them has been largely the same: “Is that it? That’s all there is?” *Sigh.* I guess I’m never going to understand how Spark obtained her reputation.

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Published in: on 25 December 2012 at 7:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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