The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender indeed…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The May of Teck Club in London’s Kensington is a place for “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.” The book tells of the lives of the crop of “girls” in residence just as the war in Europe had ended in the summer of 1945. These girls may be somewhat impecunious, but they are not from the poorer classes of society – rather they are the daughters of the genteel and the minor upper-classes, and for most of them, their main occupation is to seek a suitable husband. While the rules state an upper age limit of thirty, a few women have stayed on, becoming almost surrogate matrons to the younger girls and desperately trying to stop the bright young things from allowing standards of behaviour to fall.

There’s a bit of time-shifting in the book. As it begins, we’re in the ‘60s, when we learn of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, a man who used to be a frequent visitor to the club in 1945. He was in love with the beautiful, slinky Selina, who not only had slender means, but also hips so slender she was able to slither out of a small upstairs window for the purposes of having illicit sex on the roof. We see the story mainly through the eyes of Jane Wright, a resident of the club in the ‘40s, and now a journalist in the ‘60s, who wants to determine why, twenty years later, Nicholas should die a martyr in Haiti where he had gone off to be a Jesuit missionary. This is not out of any concern or warmth for him – she merely thinks she may be able to make a story for her paper out of it.

In truth, though, the plot is negligible – for the most part we simply observe the girls as they go about their lives in the club, and we rarely step over the threshold into the wider world. The club is very much like the boarding schools as depicted in so many school series of that era – these girls may be older and sex may have replaced midnight feasts as their method of rebellion, but there’s the same kind of dynamics of different types of people having to learn to rub along together, and the same kind of loyalty to the club as schoolgirls show to their schools (in fiction).

The girls have survived the war, but seem to have been relatively untouched by it. Some have worked in administrative and secretarial roles as part of the war effort, and are wondering what they will do now that peace will soon remove the need for them. We hear about how some have lost young men of their acquaintance, but their ghosts are not allowed to darken the tone. The girls are rather proud of the bomb that narrowly missed the club – they like to point out the damage to visitors – and there’s a rumour that another bomb is buried somewhere in the garden, unexploded.

Muriel Spark
Photo by Frank Monaco/REX (502449b)

This is rather an odd little book and I’m not at all sure if it has some deep and profound meaning that was lost on me. From my perspective, to be honest, it read like a bit of well-written and sharply observed fluff. I know that sounds rather harsh and dismissive, but I kept waiting to be startled by great insights, to be blown away by the depth of the characterisation, as I was with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But it never happened with this one. I enjoyed it – there’s a lot of humour in it and the girls were an entertaining bunch to spend time with. When I finished, however, I felt it had been something of a sorbet – delicious but hardly satisfying.

I think I felt this way partly because the ‘slender means’ of these girls seems to relate as much to their shallow lives as to their financial status. In some ways, I felt Spark’s depiction of them was rather cruel, though undoubtedly amusing. I found myself laughing at the girls for the most part, rather than with them. Again, this was very different to my reaction to the girls and women in Miss Jean Brodie, who had my complete sympathy even when they were behaving rather badly.

Juliet Stevenson

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, which was something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed her straight narration of the narrative and her delivery of the girls’ dialogue, but I found her accents for two of the male characters, one Russian, one American, overdone and distracting.

Perhaps I missed something in this book, or perhaps there’s not much there to be missed. In summary, an entertaining read that I enjoyed as it was happening but felt rather underwhelmed by in the end. I do recommend it for the writing, the observation and the humour, but I feel that anyone who loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie should lower their expectations a little before embarking on this one.

For different viewpoints of this and other Spark novels, don’t forget to visit Ali’s blog, Heavenali, where she’s running a year-long #ReadingMuriel2018 feature in honour of the centenary of her birth (Spark’s not Ali’s!), and rounding up links to the various reviews of participants around the blogosphere.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

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

  1. Hmm…. I do like a bit of ‘slice of life’ sometimes, FIctionFan, especially if it’s a time and/or place I don’t know, or don’t know well. At the same time, I know what you mean about ‘underwhelmed.’ I might look this one up, if for nothing more than the look at these people’s lives. But….on the fence, if I’m being honest. But not on the fence about your excellent review!

    • Thank you! 😀 The writing is great as are observations of the characters, and maybe there was more to it than I got – I know I don’t always take audiobooks in as well as the written word. But for me it just didn’t have the depth of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie… but then maybe I was biased towards it because of its Scottishness…

  2. I loved this one, my favourite Spark of this year so far. Sorry you were underwhelmed. I really dislike audio books and just can’t get on with them. The voices /accents really can make a difference. I think I really need to engage with the text myself. You’re not alone however, as a couple of people in my book group were also underwhelmed.

    • I wondered myself if I’d have felt differently about it if I’d read a paper copy rather than an audiobook – it definitely affects my level of insight sometimes, which was why I felt that maybe it was more profound than it felt to me, if that makes sense. One day I’ll try it again in a print version. I also felt that my preference for Miss Jean Brodie might at least in part be because of its Scottishness. Next up – The Abbess of Crewe!

  3. I’m safe!! This one doesn’t sound like my cup of tea … thankfully. Not that it might have some redeeming characteristics, but it’s not one I need to add to my TBR. Excellent review, though, as always. Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks Debbie, hope your weekend has been good too! I shall be reading at least one more Muriel Spark this year, so maybe it’ll be more tempting… 😀

    • It was for me, but I’m sure plenty of other people would love it – you know me and my need for a strong plot! Yes, I love her too and wouldn’t be put off listening to her again, though I think I’d prefer a book where she wasn’t doing foreign male accents. Her women and the linking bits were great!

  4. I’d have to agree-sorbet is wholly unsatisfying, in fact, I never get it for that reason. Once my daughter picked it out at an ice cream shop and I questioned whether i had in fact given birth to her. I probably ordered triple chocolate something or other…

    Anyway, great review! I love that author photo too.

    • Hahaha! She’s clearly an alien! You will just have to indoctrinate her – we can’t have the younger generation growing up as sorbet-lovers… whatever next??

      Thank you! Yes, I love that photo too – that’s a couple I’ve used of her that have been excellent now. She always looks so sure of herself… in a good way!

  5. This was the first Spark I read after Miss Jean Brodie and I really enjoyed it but I know what you mean about it seeming to have less to it, there’s not much plot its more of a snapshot of a moment in time. I actually preferred it to Brodie though – I understand why its her most famous novel but I find there’s plenty of Sparks I like more.

    There’s no way I’d be able to get out of that window – I was first described as having ‘child-bearing hips’ aged 11!

    • I always prefer books with a strong plot, so the fact that I enjoyed this without one is testament to the writing. I also suspect that part of my partiality to Miss Brodie is because of the Scottishness of it – I recognised all the stuff about our hang-ups over Calvinistic morality and so on and loved how she skewered it! I shall be reading The Abbess of Crewe next…

      Hahaha! I fear even in my skinny youth I’d have struggled, and those days are long, long gone… *eats a chocolate to cheer herself up*

  6. I was going to say you had me at “illicit sex on the roof,” but I don’t need another well-written book that leaves me underwhelmed. I finished Hilary Mantel’s memoir, and while her humor is off-the-charts funny and dry, she seemed to have no cohesive purpose for her work.

    • It’s odd – I loved Wolf Hall and its sequel, and enjoyed a collection of her short stories, but in general I find Mantel hard to get into. And I never take to her very much when I see her being interviewed. I don’t dislike her, but I don’t warm to her either…

    • Yes, wear a hard hat and you’ll be fine! 😉 Seriously, though, I always prefer strongly plotted books to these more observational ones, so my reaction is very subjective. If you do read it sometime, I hope you love it more than I did…

  7. It sounds as though this is an interesting look at a slice of life at a particular moment in time, which can be enjoyable in its own right but I do prefer my stories with some guts! Great review and Miss Brodie is high up on my list of classics to be read.

    • It is very well written and with lots of humour, but I do like a stronger plot than this – Miss Brodie is much better (in my opinion) so I think you’ve got the right one on your TBR! 😀

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