Posts Tagged ‘#ReadingMuriel2018’

the girls of slender means

The Girls of Slender Means is a novel of taut perfection – a wonderful precursor to A Far Cry from Kensington. Told in flash back from the present (1963) looking back at the summer of 1945, and those months between VE day and VJ day. The London streets are scarred by bomb damage and rationing bites those who have put up with it so long already.

“The May of Teck Club exists for the pecuniary convenience of 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 May of Teck Club has had its windows shattered three times since 1940. It is a hostel for young ladies under thirty. Spark herself lived in a very similar establishment, and she recreates the community perfectly. That atmosphere of everyone being in it together – endless chatter, borrowing and swapping belongings, young men visiting, careers just beginning. The upper floors look down over Kensington gardens, the Albert Memorial just around the corner, it’s a rather nice area of London to be residing in, even in 1945.

“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”

Despite being over fifty, three middle aged spinsters have been allowed to stay at the club since before the First World War, and though one of them insists that one of the bombs that dropped into the garden of the May of Teck Club is still there, no one listens. These three older women hold something of a privileged position at the Club and are generally tolerated by the younger women.

The younger women are an interesting mix, there is Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who requires extra food for her brain work. Some of this work is writing letters to famous writers, on behalf of  Rudi Bittesch – who Jane thoroughly dislikes. During the day Jane works in publishing. Joanna Childe gives elocution lessons from her room, her beautiful voice ringing out through the house. ‘Mad’ Pauline Fox frequently goes out to dinner with her imaginary companion; well-known actor Jack Buchanan. Beautiful, Selina Redwood, who daily recites an incantation to maintain her well-practised poise. Dorothy Markham is the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, who is a member of the club’s management committee. Then there is the worldly Anne, who owns the coveted taffeta Schiaparelli dress. The dress is shared between the girls slender enough to wear it, swapped for little pieces of soap or coupons.

In the back ground of all this there is a sense of darker goings on, largely ignored by those girls of slender means, but nevertheless there. The reality of war is everywhere, in the landscape all around and the coupons they trade for the right to wear the Schiaparelli dress. Whispers of another great bomb being prepared, remind us that the world was on the brink of frightening great change.

It is important to be very slim at the May of Teck Club, not only so girls can fit into the Schiaparelli dress, but because girls who are slender enough are able to squeeze through the lavatory window to the flat roof. Here girls can sunbathe unseen or meet lovers who climb over from the building next door.

Selina is quite the expert in getting through that window, while Jane of course can only stand and watch. This ability, or not to get through the tiny aperture of the window to the roof beyond becomes very important as the novel progresses.
Into this all female world that runs smoothly enough, comes Nicholas Farringdon an aspiring writer to unwittingly unsettle the status quo.

“We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. 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.”

As the novel opens in the present time of 1963, former residents of the May of Teck Club pass along the news of Nicholas’s death in Haiti where he had worked as a missionary. In those former days he had made great friends of several of the young women from the May of Teck Club, and becomes a regular visitor. He decides he would like to do nice things for Jane (though not sleep with her) he takes her to parties and poetry readings, introducing her to other writers, but it is Selina who really turns his head. Many hot summer nights are spent with Selina out on the roof of the May of Teck Club.

Nothing lasts forever, and the days of the May of Teck Club are sadly numbered. In typical Spark fashion the conclusion of the novel is shockingly dramatic. The Girls of Slender Means is a slight novel, in which not a word is wasted – Spark re-creates the atmosphere of a hostel for young ladies, in 1945 with absolute perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the nice poor people in 1945 who live at the May of Teck Club across the road from Kensington Gardens and have a share in a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

I persuaded my very small book group to join in #ReadingMuriel2018 and pick this for our March read. We meet on Wednesday to discuss it.


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The first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 is over – all bar the shouting – and what has been heartening for me is just how many people have joined in and showed their enthusiasm. Before January I had only read three Muriel Spark novels – so I am enjoying learning more about Muriel Spark and her work as I go along. This post is really just to try and draw everyone together – give a brief snapshot of some thoughts and reactions – and links to other reviews. Of course, many people are reading Muriel Spark at the moment in celebration of her centenary – so it is a little difficult for me sometimes to know who exactly has joined in my little read-a-long – and who are just reading a Muriel Spark novel.

Apologies to anyone who I don’t acknowledge, I am trying my best not to miss anyone out – please nudge me if I have. Use of the hashtag on Twitter does help me find you.

Anyway Phase 1 was all about Muriel Spark’s 1950s novels; The Comforters, Robinson and Memento Mori. I hadn’t originally planned to read all three, but I did, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. However, I have already posted my reviews of them, so I’m handing over to the rest of you.

the comforters2

Grant shared his review of The Comforters from 2010, which he called “a delicately-iced, bite-sized, bitter-sweet tart.” Vikki said: “I love how Sparkian devices/themes are set out from the off, like her famous flash forwards.” Jennifer said:”she wrote about everyday things that fascinated her but from such a unique angle its as if she’s revealing something new to us each time we enter Spark World.” Yvonne also read The Comforters, finding it superb and it was a re-read for Gill who called it “an extraordinary debut.” Lisa from Bluestalking Journal reviewed The Comforters her review highlighting the eccentric nature of the characters. Chrystyna was able to find a copy of The Comforters in her local library. Mike from the Librarything Virago group – is on a Spark reading marathon, and said of The Comforters that “this greater complexity is a bit of a weakness, but nevertheless and especially for a first novel The Comforters is a definite 4****.” Christine from the BookTrunk and says that “Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none.” Karen from Bookertalk had less success with The Comforters, although she enjoyed the light comedy of the opening, and is hoping to do better with one of her later works. Monica has been reading all three of Spark’s early novels, and found The Comforters might be deserving of a re-read. Christine of Bride of the book god, has also read all three novels, and her post brings together her thoughts on all three novels by one of her favourite writers.

Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel also proved a hit with those who read it. I was enthralled by it, as was Chrystyna who was able to see patterns between it and The Comforters. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Robinson calling it “a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well.” Jennifer said she loved January for throwing that bowl of soup over Tom – I can’t help but agree. Like many of us Yvonne also moved from reading The Comforters to Robinson. Leaves and Pages reviewed Robinson too calling it clever and strangely engaging. Vikki called Robinson an intriguing novel saying: “The air of mystery surrounding Robinson is so deftly done.” Mike, however called Robinson not that great a novel but worth reading.Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life reviewed Robinson saying “Spark’s Robinson isn’t good, it is excellent. Although not perfect. There are too many conflicts regarding Catholic doctrine for me.” Mary called Robinson “quirky, sharp, clever writing.” This was Monica’s favourite of the three early novels.
momento mori2

Memento Mori is a Spark novel that many people consider to be among her best. Lady Fanciful reviewed Memento Mori calling it “a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.” I know Cathy from WhatCathyReadNext blog was planning on reading Memento Mori – I’ll edit in a review when I see it pop up. Caroline from book word reviewed Memento Mori calling it “short, bizarre, almost macabre,” going on to say that: “Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifestations of ageing.” For Mike Memento Mori was a definite 5 star read, which he says he loves even more every time he reads it. Annabel reviewed Memento Mori remarking that “Spark’s style which even in her earlier work takes no prisoners and wastes few words – requiring a little concentration to keep up with her!” When Yvonne began reading Memento Mori she was taken aback by the irony,and hindsight. Monica found the ending of this novel a bit of a let down but loved the characters.

Wow, well I hadn’t realised just how many people were joining in until I started looking through all the #ReadingMuriel2018 traffic. It’s been fabulous seeing so much enthusiasm for the project.

March/April is all about the 1960s novels. You can find the full schedule on my #ReadingMuriel2018 page. I have manged to get three novels for the next phase – whether I find time to read that many again remains to be seen. There is a much longer list to choose from for Phase 2 and no one is expected to read them all – although if you are undertaking a marathon reading of Spark well done, and good luck. I think three in two months will be the most I can manage, though one book every two months is plenty too. No obligation to join in again though if you are planning on joining me, let me know what you’re hoping to read.

Incidentally did anyone watch the Muriel Spark documentary currently on BBC I-player? – I think it must be finishing any day now – so if you haven’t seen it, and if it is still available – I highly recommend it.

Thank you to everyone who have helped to make this first phase such a success. Here’s to the next phase.


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Well. #ReadingMuriel2018 continues apace and although there is no need to read more than one book every two months I shall be reading more than that, during this first phase certainly.

With The Comforters, I felt that Muriel Spark really set out her stall so to speak, her debut novel giving us a real taste of what was to come. However, with her second novel Robinson, she shows we might not want to be too quick to pigeon hole her work. As if a writer like Muriel Spark could ever be accurately pigeon holed anyway.

There are layers to Robinson, which make the whole – reasonably slight – novel, deceptively complex. However, it is very readable and gloriously compelling. In this novel, Spark plays homage to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often said to have been the first novel. However, as Candia McWilliam points out in her introduction to my Polygon edition, we can also be reminded of another island Robinson – the Swiss Family Robinson (they made me want a tree house). Muriel Spark’s son was called Robin – he lived with her parents and the two appear to have spent most of his life estranged. Layers, of fascinating possibilities to what might have inspired or driven Muriel Spark to write this extraordinary novel.

Religion plays a big part, Spark’s conversion to Catholicism which was in such evidence in The Comforters is present here too in the character of January Marlow, and in the arguments and discussions between her and other characters.
The plot premise is what made me want to read the book – which of us hasn’t wondered about being marooned on a remote island? (ok just me then).


January Marlow, a young widow, has been sent to research a group of islands, and on a flight from the Azores the plane she is on crashes on a tiny, isolated island in the North Atlantic. January is one of just three survivors; Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, are her fellow survivors.

“We were a thousand miles from anywhere. I think the effects of the concussion were still upon me when I got up, the fourth morning after the crash. It was some time before I took in the details of Robinson’s establishment, and not till a week later that I began to wonder at his curious isolation.”

January comes to, finding herself attended by a man named Miles Mary Robinson, on a remote island also called Robinson after its owner – with a ping-pong playing cat, and a young boy named Miguel. Miguel is Robinson’s adopted son, the offspring of one of the pomegranate men who come to the island every few months, who Robinson took on after his natural father died. January has a young son at home, who she realises, will believe her to be dead. She records her experiences in a note book journal given to her by Robinson, with the instruction to write the facts.

“To teach a cat to play ping-pong you have first to win the confidence and approval of the cat. Bluebell was the second cat I had undertaken to teach; I found her more amenable than the first, which had been a male.
Ping-pong with a cat is a simplified and more individualistic form of the proper game. You play it close to the ground, and you imagine the net.”

Soon January meets Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, the latter a man still recovering from his injuries, she takes an instant dislike to, Jimmie she recognises from the plane. Robinson tells them they have no way of communicating with the rest of the world, and they will have to sit tight till the pomegranate men arrive in three months’ time. Robinson advises January not to waste time staring out to sea hoping to see a boat – that there won’t be any boats coming their way. In flashback we start to learn something of January and her past, she has begun to see parallels in the personalities of her fellow island inhabitants and her two brothers-in-law back in London.

Robinson has a nineteenth century house in a Spanish style, within sight of a lake. He boasts a well-stocked library – containing many uncut first editions – and has provisions to last till his friends the pomegranate men come again. He and Miguel know the small, man shaped island inside and out – and Miguel particularly proves himself a useful guide. However, Robinson strongly objects to January’s Catholicism and it soon becomes a point of conflict between them as he forbids her from teaching Miguel about the rosary.

Dutchman; Jimmie Waterford, with whom January allies herself – turns out to be related to Robinson, he was on his way to the island anyway – sent by members of the family to persuade him home, to take charge of the family business. Tom Wells is a bit of dubious character, a seller of charms, he runs a funny little magazine, and avoids helping around the island whenever he can. Quick to dish out the snide remarks, which make January feel uncomfortable, there is something quite unlikable about him. While the talkative, Jimmie with his eccentric way of speaking, is a breath of fresh air by comparison.

“In the evenings, however, we did not bicker quite so much. The evening after turning out the storehouse, when we were settled in Robinson’s room, some drinking rum, some brandy, we were tired and relaxed with each other so far as to speculate how it would be when were rescued, how surprised everyone would be.”

Tensions rise between the inhabitants, the weeks before that expected boat stretch out before them. Things take a darker turn when Robinson disappears, no trace of him can be found, but there is a trail of blood all over the island, and poor Miguel is utterly inconsolable. Each of the plane survivors begin to suspect one of the others of being a murderer. With everyone wondering about everybody else’s motivations, the pomegranate men and their boat seem further away than ever. Who – if anyone – can be trusted – and what happened to Robinson?

This is a rollicking good read, proof should it be needed (it isn’t) that a page turner and a literary novel are not mutually exclusive. Honestly, I am going to enjoy reading more by Muriel Spark this year. There is something about her quirkiness and slight darkness that appeals to me.


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Choosing my first book of the year wasn’t too difficult. I was so keen to get started on my #ReadingMuriel2018 project that I began reading The Comforters over breakfast on January 1st.

The Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel published when she was nearly forty, she had only begun writing seriously after the Second World War. Spark, had previously suffered from hallucinations, and she brings this experience and her recent conversion to Catholicism to her extraordinary debut. It is a debut that is remarkably assured, in this her first novel, Spark really has set out her stall, showing her readers that they are in the hands of a different kind of writer. While the book was still in proof it was read by Evelyn Waugh, who praised it, the novel’s success meant that Muriel Spark could then afford to write full time.

The central character in the novel is Caroline Rose, although it is with her boyfriend Laurence Manders that the novel opens. Laurence is staying with his part gypsy grandmother Louisa Jepp.

“On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.
‘I’ll have a large wholemeal. I’ve got my grandson stopping for a week, who’s on the BBC. That’s my daughter’s boy, Lady Manders. He won’t eat white bread, one of his fads.’
Laurence shouted from the window, ‘Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.’
She puckered and beamed up at him.
‘Shouting from the window,’ she said to the baker.”

It is a wonderfully light comedic opening, and just the first of the ways in which Spark leads up the garden path. The Comforters is not strictly a comedy, though are plenty of flashes of humour in it. There are two plots in the novel – both involve the same characters, though there isn’t any other obvious overlap between the subplots. One of the stories is pretty much straightforward, though there is a delicious improbability in it; there is something going on with Louisa. While the second story, focusing largely on Caroline, is what I have seen others refer to as being typically Sparkian. As this is just the fourth Spark novel I have read, I’m not sure if I could fully appreciate these traits, yet I was able to recognise that oddness that I have found in those other novels. Muriel Spark takes the every day and twists it, so we are not altogether certain what is going on. However, the writing is glorious, and the storytelling such that the reader is compelled to read on.

While Laurence is staying in Louisa’s house, he discovers diamonds hidden in a loaf of bread. Louisa also seems to have a peculiar group of friends, who Laurence finds her closeted with one evening. Mr Webster; the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his disabled son. Laurence believes that grandma has a gang.

In a sense it is Caroline who joins the two narratives together because she is Laurence’s girlfriend. Laurence writes to Caroline at the Catholic retreat she has gone to but before the letter can reach her she has left. At the retreat Caroline had met Mrs Hogg, who she takes an immediate and deep dislike to. Mrs Hogg, formally a servant of the Manders family, is a disruptive, interfering personality, who Lady Manders always feels she should help find employment. Mrs Hogg is the most dominant personality in the novel – she is obsessively religious, and capable of great mischief.

The tone of the novel changes as we find Caroline back in her London flat alone. She is writing a book about form in the modern novel – and as she finds herself struggling with a chapter about realism, Caroline becomes aware of voices, and the sound of a typewriter. The voices and the typewriter are connected, the typewriter tapping out the words spoken, and in time Caroline becomes aware that the voice is echoing her own thoughts and actions. She attempts to flee the typewriting voices by going to the flat of a friend the Baron who owns a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Caroline comes to see herself as a character in a novel, and there is a palpable atmosphere of unease in the scenes where Caroline is alone with the sound of the typewriting voices.

“Through the darkness, from beside the fireplace, Caroline heard a sound. Tap. The typewriter. She sat up as the voices followed:
The Baron had seemed extraordinarily interested in Laurence’s grandmother, He was the person one would expect to have remembered – and by name – an undistinguished old lady to whom he had been introduced casually three years ago. Mrs Jepp was not immediately impressive to strangers.
Caroline yelled, ‘Willi! Oh, my God, the voices…Willi!’”

Laurence moves in with Caroline, keen to help her he suggests trying to record the voices on a dictaphone. Things don’t go quite to plan and later Caroline finds herself attempting to reconcile herself to the voices she hears, as Laurence tries to figure out what grandma is up to, is she really involved with diamond smuggling?

I don’t want to say too much more about this novel – which I am finding quite hard to write about anyway – as other people are or will be reading it during this first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The Comforters was a great way to start the New Year, and although I only need to read one Muriel Spark novel every two months – I am pretty sure to be reading more than that. These Polygon editions (I bought four before Christmas) are gorgeous, and I have had to stop myself buying the lot.


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Collage 2017-12-11 21_15_49

I’m back with another year long reading event – and as ever I would love some company. Can I tempt you?

Earlier this year I read The Driver’s Seat and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, I loved them. My only other experience with Muriel Spark was years ago when I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I liked but didn’t love – and perhaps put me off reading more. I was clearly wrong to have been put off and now I think is the time to get to grips with this fascinating writer. 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and there is already a lot of celebrations planned.

murielsparkThose of you on Twitter can follow @MurielSpark100 for news of events –(#MurielSpark100) there is for instance an exhibition at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Virago books are bringing out a few new editions of Muriel Spark novels (though I haven’t been able to discover which ones) and Polygon books are in the process of releasing 22 books in recognition of Sparks 100th birthday – the first four are already out and available through their website or from the usual large online retailer.

Anyway, I’m jumping on the bandwagon with a little reading event. Of course, not everyone will want to sign up to a yearlong event – that’s my own peculiar piece of madness. A year long event of course allows people to dip in and out as they are able – though if anyone can keep me company for the whole period I would be delighted. If you did want to keep pace with me throughout the year – the minimum you would need to read is six books – in fact during phase four (see below) you could just read a couple of poems or one short story.

After my experience with #Woolfalong I’m dividing the year up into six two-month phases. People can choose which books to read in each category.

Phase 1 (January/February) Early novels – 1950s

• The Comforters (1957)
• Robinson (1958)
• Memento Mori (1959)

Phase 2. (March/April) 1960s

• The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
• The Bachelors (1960)
• The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
• The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
• The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
• The Public Image (1968)

Phase 3 (May/June) 1970s

• The Driver’s Seat (1970)
• Not To Disturb (1971)
• The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
• The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
• The Takeover (1976)
• Territorial Rights (1979)

Phase 4 (July/August) short stories/ poetry/essays

Various collections available including:
Complete poems
Complete short stories
The Golden fleece – essays
Going up to Sotherby’s and other poems

Phase 5 (September/October) 1980s/1990s

• Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
• The Only Problem (1984)
• A Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
. Symposium (1990)
. Reality and dreams (1996)

Phase 6 (November/December) later novels/autobiography/biography

Final two novels
• Aiding and Abetting (2000)
• The Finishing School (2004)

Curriculum Vitae – autobiography
Appointment in Arezzo: a friendship with Muriel Spark – Alan Taylor
Muriel Spark the biography by Martin Stannard

I really hope a few of you will join me in this – I love an internet read-a-long. I will be putting a copy of the above schedule on a separate page on my blog so that I and anyone else can refer to it when needed.


I feel I need a hashtag – but with so many Muriel Spark centenary celebrations around it could get confusing – there are already several others doing the rounds. So, I have settled on #readingMuriel2018 hoping it will be easy for people to remember and not get mixed up with the others. I don’t want to step on any toes.


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