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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Luckily for Frederick – or the Palatine, as he was called in England – he had some potent weapons in his wooing arsenal. Although his property was in Germany, he had been educated in France by his suave uncle the duke of Bouillon. The duke could not have provided a more thorough or excellent preparation for royal lovemaking. Whatever else the results of Frederick’s studies, his uncle had made sure that he knew how to dress, that his manners were charming, that he spoke French to perfection, and, more important, that he was well versed in the art of romance.
….Judging by the recollections of an observer who chronicled the Palatine’s visit to England, Frederick’s first performance at court was nothing short of masterful. He flattered James [. . .] conciliated Anne [. . .] joked with Henry [. . .] and then knocked it completely out of the park with Elizabeth: “Stooping low to take up the lowest part of her Garment to kiss it, she most gracefully courtesying lower than accustomed, and with her Hand staying him from that humblest Reverence, gave him at his rising a fair Advantage (which he took) of kissing her.”

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….All things considered, the new academic year has not got off to a very auspicious start. No tea and biscuits in the Porters’ Lodge, a murderous Russian inducted as our new Bursar and now two dead bodies at the bottom of the gardens. When I first came to Old College a year ago, the arbitrary arrival of dead bodies used to worry me a bit. I soon learnt that, for some reason, academia is more dangerous than would first appear and for reasons harking back to the ancient founding of the College, prominent figures of The Fellowship meeting an untimely demise was par for the course. And, having also learned what a conniving bunch of power-crazed narcissists they all are, this seems perfectly reasonable. The politics of the academic elite make the machinations of Ancient Rome look like a bun fight and many of the devious buggers deserve everything they get. Not all of them. But quite a few of them.

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….Jane, observing Selena’s long glance of perfect balance and equanimity resting upon Nicholas, immediately foresaw that she would be disposed in the front seat with Felix, while Selena stepped with her arch-footed poise into the back, where Nicholas would join her, and she foresaw that this arrangement would come about with effortless elegance. She had no objection to Felix but she could not hope to win him for herself, having nothing to offer a man like Felix. She felt she had a certain something, though small, to offer Nicholas, this being her literary and brain-work side, which Selena lacked. It was in fact a misunderstanding of Nicholas. She vaguely thought of him as a more attractive Rudi Bittesch, to imagine he would receive more pleasure and reassurance from a literary girl than simply a girl. It was the girl in Jane that had moved him to kiss her at the party. She might have gone further with Nicholas without her literary leanings. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women from the same business, and it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women, but girls.

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….The devil makes work for idle hands. The memory of his mother saying those words was so sharp that he almost turned round, expecting to see her sitting in the chair by the fire, the belt filled with horsehair round her waist, one needle stuck into it, held firm, while the other flew. She could knit a pair of stockings in an afternoon, a plain jersey in a week. She was known as the best knitter in the south, though she’d never enjoyed doing the fancy Fair Isle patterns. What point is there in that? she’d say, putting the stress on the last word so she’d almost spit it out. Will it keep dee ony warmer?
….
He wondered what other work the devil might find for him.

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….Tear the collar of your last shirt at your throat, dear heart! Tear the hair of your head, thin with your joyless, heavy life; bite your lips till the blood comes; wring your work-scarred hands and beat yourself against the floor on the threshold of your empty hut! The master is missing from your hut, your husband is missing, your children are fatherless; and remember that no-one will caress you or your orphans, no-one will press your head to his breast at night, when you drop worn out with weariness; and no-one will say to you as once he said: “Don’t worry, Aniska, we’ll manage somehow!” You will not get another husband, for labour, anxieties, children have withered you and lined you. No father will come for your half-naked, snivelling children. You yourself will have to do all the ploughing, the dragging, panting with the over-great strain. You will have to pitchfork the sheaves from the reaper, to throw them onto the wagon, to raise the heavy bundles of wheat on the pitchfork, feeling the while that something is rending beneath your belly. And afterwards you will writhe with pain, covering yourself with your rags and issuing with blood.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 156…

Episode 156…

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! A massive drop in the TBR since I last reported! Down 4 to 214! But I’m now stuck in the middle of a bunch of giant tomes and a parcel is heading my way, so the slide has probably come to an end for a bit…

(Apparently he was fine!)

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Film History

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Last year I was blown away by the experience of reading Arthur C Clarke’s book and watching Stanley Kubrick’s film together, as they were intended to be. So I couldn’t resist this book about the creation of these two masterpieces, or, perhaps, joint masterpiece…

The Blurb says: Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. A colourful nonfiction narrative packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents, Space Odyssey provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status.

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Humorous Crime

The third instalment of Lucy Brazier’s PorterGirl series. I shall stock up in readiness with stacks of sausage sandwiches, copious buckets of tea and a barrel-load of biscuits to fortify myself for whatever skulduggery awaits me in Old College this time… 😱

The Blurb says: “Sometimes the opposite of right isn’t wrong. It’s left.”

Tragedy strikes once more at Old College… The Porters’ Lodge is down to its last tea bag and no one has seen a biscuit for over a week. Almost as troubling are the two dead bodies at the bottom of the College gardens and a woman has gone missing. The Dean is convinced that occult machinations are to blame, Deputy Head Porter suspects something closer to home.

The formidable DCI Thompson refuses to be sidelined and a rather unpleasant Professor gets his comeuppance. As the body count rises, Head Porter tries to live a secret double life and The Dean believes his job is under threat from the Russian Secret Service. Deputy Head Porter finds herself with her hands full keeping Old College running smoothly as well as defending herself against the sinister intentions of the new Bursar.

Spies, poisoning, murder – and none of this would be any problem at all, if only someone would get the biscuits out and put the kettle on…

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Regulars will know I love Sir Arthur nearly as much as I love Dr Watson and Darcy, so I couldn’t resist begging a copy of this new collection of all his darker tales. I’ve read several of them before and even reviewed one or two as Tuesday Terror! posts, but there are plenty more which will be new to me. I can barely resist rubbing my hands in glee…

The Blurb says: Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of gothic tales. Many of Doyle’s writings are recognized as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.

This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle’s best gothic tales. Darryl Jones’s introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle’s very public life – as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule – and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.

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Spark on Audio

Having recently thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try to fit another one in for the second phase of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018, which she’s running to celebrate Spark’s centenary year. And I thought it might be fun to listen to Juliet Stevenson reading it to me…

The Blurb says: It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark’s evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times. The novel is at once dramatic and character-based, and shows Muriel Spark at the height of her literary powers. Juliet Stevenson reads with her customary wit and intelligence this powerful masterpiece.

(Is this the shortest blurb in the history of the universe? I like it!)

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 145…

Episode 145…

OK, well, the TBR has increased by 2 this week to 216. But I’m pretty sure the underlying trend is down. It’s simply all depends on how you look at it…

Here are the next ones that will add to the massive reduction…

Crime

This book was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel (2017). Our resident crime expert Margot Kinberg from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist was on the award panel and spotlighted each of the nominees on her fine blog. This was the book that appealed to me most, but there’s no sign of a UK publication date for it yet. After I bemoaned this fact, Margot very kindly sent me her own copy – thank you, Margot! This will take me to New Zealand for the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

The Blurb says: When a woman’s body is discovered frozen in the ice of a river near the alpine resort of Queenstown, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan faces both a mystery and a moral dilemma. The identity of the nude woman is critical to the motives and manner of her murder, and Buchan is personally involved. So are a number of locals, from ski bums to multi-millionaire businessman. Newly appointed to head CIB in the Southern Lakes district, Buchan hunts the killer through the entanglements of corruption and abuse that lie barely below the surface of the tourist towns.

The assistance of a woman traffic sergeant is critical to the hunt but she brings her own dilemmas. The community is practised at keeping its secrets, and finding the truth comes at a price.

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Classic Fiction

To celebrate the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, time to re-read this, perhaps her best-known novel. It’s from my Classics Club list, and will also be a great excuse to watch the wonderful film again…

The Blurb says: At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.” And they do–but one of them will betray her.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Poisoned Pen Press via NetGalley. Another anthology of vintage crime short stories from the great combo of the British Library and Martin Edwards. This time the focus is on early “police procedurals”…

The Blurb says: In classic British crime fiction, dazzling detective work is often the province of a brilliant amateur – whereas the humble police detective cuts a hapless figure. The twelve stories collected here strike a blow for the professionals, with teasing mysteries to challenge hard-working police officers’ persistence and scrupulous attention to detail. As in his previous anthologies for the British Library Crime Classics series, Martin Edwards introduces readers to fascinating neglected gems of British crime writing as well as uncovering lesser-known stories by the great novelists of the golden age.

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Fiction on Audio

I tried listening to this a couple of years ago but failed. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the book – I was simply struggling to concentrate on the audio format. However, I’ve been training myself to listen to audiobooks since then, so time to give this one another chance. It might also count towards the Around the World in 80 Books Challenge… 

The Blurb says: There are six homesteads on Blackåsen Mountain. A day’s journey away lies the empty town. It comes to life just once, in winter, when the church summons her people through the snows. Then even the oldest enemies will gather.

But now it is summer, and new settlers are come. It is their two young daughters who find the dead man not half an hour’s walk from their cottage. The father is away. And whether stubborn or stupid or scared for her girls, the mother will not let it rest.

To the wife who is not concerned when her husband does not come home for three days to the man who laughs when he hears his brother is dead to the priest who doesn’t care, she asks and asks her questions, digging at the secrets of the mountain. They say a wolf made those wounds. But what wild animal cuts a body so clean?

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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