The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Expletives deleted…

😐 😐

When the old Abbess of Crewe dies it seems inevitable her shoes will be filled by Sister Alexandra, the Machiavelli of the convent. But Sister Felicity is becoming an unlikely rival, preaching her message of free love as she stitches her embroidery. Sister Alexandra expects her followers to fix this threat but when their plans lead to a break-in at the convent, the ensuing scandal threatens to destroy her. She has no intention, however, of going down without a fight… or at all, if she can help it…

This is a ham-fisted satire of Watergate, with Sister Alexandra in the Nixon role. While half my brain (all that was required) was watching the too obvious unravelling of the cover-up of the scandal, the other half was wondering why satire often falls so flat. On the whole I’m not a huge fan of satire, so I’m probably not the best person to come with a definitive recipe for success, but I do think there are some essential ingredients.

It should take facts that are so obvious that people tend to forget or overlook them and spin them in a way that forces the audience to face them. Currently Sarah Cooper has this down to perfection with her lip-sync versions of some of Trump’s utterances. Her body language cuts through our jaded shellshock and reminds us of the true idiocy of what’s coming out of his mouth…

Bird and Fortune went a stage further. This super-intelligent satirical duo would go through all the hidden detail in government reports or scandals, and then present them with such humour that even people whose eyes glazed over at the thought of reading a lengthy newspaper article were happy to listen and learn…

Satire must also be cruel, at least a little, if it’s to hit home. The cruellest satire can change the way an audience thinks, not by telling lies, but by exaggerating the truth until it becomes monstrous. Many people who were around in John Major’s time as Prime Minister, if asked what they most remember about him, are quite likely to say that he was boring, grey and liked peas, because that’s how Spitting Image made us see him…

Another essential is that it must be brilliantly performed and highly entertaining. Otherwise it just sounds like a political rant, and we’ve all heard more than enough of them. The wondrous Randy Rainbow’s parodies of songs from musicals contain some of the most intelligently written, insightful and brutal satire of the Trump era in the lyrics, and his performances are so superb they almost make me hope we have Trump for another four years. Almost…

(NB Adults only for this one…)

I hope you enjoyed that little run through some of my favourite satirists, past and present. If you did, then you had more fun than I had reading Spark’s book, I’m afraid. She doesn’t show us any new aspect or perspective on Watergate. Anyone who remembers it will learn nothing new, and anyone who doesn’t is likely to be left head-scratching as to what the point of the book is at all. It’s dully written, full of extracts from the Bible and poems, and frankly I’d rather have been reading a lengthy newspaper article on the real scandal. And it’s not cruel – I fear it is “cosy satire” and what on earth purpose does that serve except to act as a perfect example of an oxymoron?

But its major downfall is that it’s simply not funny. Whatever else satire should or shouldn’t be, it ought to be funny.

A major fail for me, and I’m feeling that, despite having loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, perhaps Stark and I are simply not destined to get along.

Book 7 of 20

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47 thoughts on “The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

  1. Oh dear, and everything was going so well… Some great clips. I’ve seen Sarah Cooper clips before, she’s so clever and honestly there’s so much absolute rubbish spouted it’s not surprising so many have made a mockery of it.

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  2. Cosy Satire? It seems as though this was a real misfire, and satire without any humor just seems pointless to me. My only experience of Spark is the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I thought was brilliant, and I still think I need to read more of her work. I’ll pass on this one though, and look through her back catalogue for something more appealing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved Miss Jean Brodie, and quite enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means although I didn’t think it had much depth, But this one was a real miss for me. I might try another of her books before I give up on her completely but she’ll have to work quite hard to redeem herself after this…

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  3. I absolutely loved your examples of satire that works, FictionFan. That’s really effective satire, and when it does work, it can be brilliant. But, as you say, when it falls on its face, it doesn’t just fall. It collapses with a loud thud. I’m sorry to hear that this one didn’t work for you, but thanks for making me think about satire – doing that well is a gift.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’d quite forgotten the book by the end of your review! I do keep up with and much enjoy Sarah Cooper‘s and Randy Rainbow’s skits – I’m finding it unusual to never have even a slight twinge of pity for the victim of those satires. The other two examples are new to me, I laughed out aloud a few times during the Bird and Fortune. Thanks for the uplift!

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    • I used to love Bird and Fortune – their sketches were always very long, but very funny, and mostly completely factual! Randy Rainbow is my superhero at the moment – he brightens up even the darkest day! And yes, I know what you mean about pity – I often find satire can be too cruel (I always did with poor John Major who was fundamentally quite a decent man, if ineffectual), but Trump seems to fully deserve all he gets and more. I’ll miss him when he’s gone… 😉

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  5. That Spitting Image depiction of Major was so effective that, even though I was too young to really be forming political images or memories when he was in power, and definitely would not have been allowed to watch Spitting Image, I would probably describe him as grey and boring – because I think that’s characterised how people talk about him ever since, so it’s what I’ve picked up.

    Shame that you didn’t enjoy this – I think it’s much harder to get satire right in written form than visual, though I don’t know why exactly. I don’t think I’ll be adding this one to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Spitting Image was incredibly influential in its heyday – like so many things it went on too long and lost its power, but in the Thatcher years it was brilliant! A lot of what we think we know about the personalities of that time are coloured by how they portrayed them, I think.

      Yes, I agree – written satire never works as well for me as visual, although even as written satire I thought this was pretty poor. Oh well!

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  6. Sarah Cooper has definitely been a highlight in the middle of all this 2020 insanity. She’s drowning in material, I’m sure. As is Randy. So we do not, not even almost, hope for four more years.

    Oh, this was a book review. Right. What was the book again? 🤔

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    • Hahaha, but what will poor Randy do?? It won’t be the same if he’s mean to Biden – it’s cruel to make fun of senile people! And I don’t know if I can get through life without a new Randy song every couple of weeks… 😂

      That was pretty much my reaction to the book… 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I imagine it takes a special brand of cleverness to write satire. I know I’m not cut out for it! Sorry this one failed to impress you, but thanks for the heads-up. Now, kick your heels up and have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never think it works as well in written form as visual satire, but this one was particularly poor, I thought. Never mind – coffee and cake will bring back my natural good-humour… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Last fall, I had the painful experience of watching a short satire about the 2016 election. It was live, and it was a political rant, one that tried to be funny and failed horribly. At first I felt bad for the performers, but they had written the material and should have known better. I now have an aversion to live comedy. Anyway, I LOVE Randy Rainbow. He is absolutely brilliant!!

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    • Ugh, yes, there’s nothing worse than being at live comedy that isn’t funny! Satire is so tricky – it can so easily turn into unfunny ranting, or like this one, just not really have anything worth saying. Randy on the other hand is the only thing that’s getting me through life at the moment! I reckon they should prescribe him instead of anti-depressants… 😀

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  9. Don’t know much about Britain’s politicians [after Tony Grieg don’t even know who have been UK’s PMs] but always thought John Major was a decent man esp after the rather high and mighty Margaret Thatcher. Little idea about the Nixon scandal so definitely not a book for me.

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    • I must admit I think most politicians are reasonably decent human beings even when I hate their politics (Trump is the obvious exception!). That’s why quite often I find satire just a bit too cruel.

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  10. I lived through Watergate (not that I paid much attention at the time, since I was a teenager 🙄), so this is not something that really interests me. Probably the only satire that I ever truly loved was MAD Magazine, which I read for decades. Everyone and everything was fair game, yet they never poked fun in a mean-spirited way. Even when I don’t like a political figure, I can’t stand seeing them raked over the coals by the opposing side. There seems to be no common decency anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t have a clue about Watergate while it was happening – didn’t understand it at all. But I’ve read books about it now and seen All the President’s Men so this book told me nothing I didn’t already know! I haven’t seen MAD but we have a political satire mag over here called Private Eye which is often very funny – and often not funny at all! Satire is really tricky – I don’t like it when it gets too cruel and personal.

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  11. I am truly sorry that this one didn’t work for you but very thankful that once again your suffering brought forth merriment in the rank and file. Loved Bird & Fortune back in the day, and Spitting Image 😄😂 It’s being resurrected, had you heard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did hear, just while I was searching for this clip, in fact. I wonder if it’ll be as good now – it was so original when it first started. I always thought the Thatcher era was when it was at its peak – so much room for satire there! Bird and Fortune were brilliant, and Rory Bremner. Golden days for satire! Now all the good satire is American… hmm! Wonder why? Something to do with an orange creature with strange hair perhaps? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • I loved Miss Jean Brodie and quite liked The Girls of Slender Means, but this one was pretty bad. I’ll maybe give her one last chance – but not for a while! I had far more fun searching out the clips, so I’m glad you enjoyed them… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks, I’ve always said she’s wildly over-praised, some of her books are real duffers. Apart from that – she was not a very nice person, I have a feeling that her whole career was helped hugely by the parties she threw and the celebs and authors that she sucked up to.

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    • I find that with quite a lot of the writers from that era – that they all praised each other and rather looked down on readers as if we were just too dull to recognise their vast superiority. I’ve only read three of her books – loved Miss Brodie, was a bit meh about The Girls of Slender Means, and thought this one was pretty poor – don’t think I’m destined to become a fan!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Satire is very tricky to get right, so not surprised this one did not work out. On a happier note, I love Sarah Cooper! Everything that comes out of that man’s month is complete idiocy, and she’s exposing him for how truly dumb him, and his followers are. We needed her about four years ago, but whatever, I’ll take her now!

    Liked by 1 person

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