Thursday, June 17, 2010

359. The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark

History: This book was published in 1963.
Plot: It is set in 'The May of Teck Club', established "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". It concerns the lives and loves of its disparate residents amongst the deprivations of immediate post-war Kensington between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. The frame story, set in 1963, concerns the news that Nicholas Farringdon, an anarchist intellectual turned Jesuit, has been killed in Haiti. The bulk of the novella is taken up by flashbacks to 1945, concerning Farringdon and the club. It is mainly a collection of stories about the women of the club and their various antics dealing with war in London. The May of Teck girls in London swapped chocolate for face cream. They quarrelled and reconciled, much as we had done, and worked on their poise and dabbled in danger and took turns wearing a gorgeous Schiaparelli dress that one of the girls had inherited from an aunt. The girls are all working as clerks or secretaries and living on rations, clothing coupons and hand outs from admiring men. Through each on of the girls in the book Spark looks at the morals and plotting of such a group of women in both a comic and sometimes shocking way.
We have Joanna a rectors daughter who shockingly fell for a rector herself before coming to London and teaching elocution lessons, Greggie, Jarvie and Collie the old maids of the building, Pauline Fox a mad young lady who believes she dines with the actor Jack Buchanan every night, Jane Wright who works in a publisher and gets authors to write letters signed she can sell on the black market and yet who doesn’t know Henry James is dead and Selina a woman of loose morals who sleeps with weak men but pursues strong ones for marriage partners she wont sleep with yet. All of them will become more unified and torn apart though not only when Nicholas Farringdon a charming author turns up, but when a shocking event leads to one girls fatal end.
Review: This was an innovative book in 1963 - not that I knew that then - and it still, today, flashes its own disguising Schiaparelli dress, with the beauty of youth pressed close against youth's bewilderment. Innocence is abruptly overturned in these pages, but Spark has structured her novel so that we realise we are about to be blown into tragedy. Each of them is in peril, each frightened by a direct question concerning her raison d'être (that daunting phrase they are just beginning to hear). Their slenderness lies not so much in their means as in their half-perceived notions about what their lives will become and their overestimation of their power in the world. They are fearless and frightened at the same time, as only the very young can be, and they are as heartless in spirit as they are merry in mode.
Opening Line: “Long ago in 1945, all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”
Closing Line: “Nicholas marveled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death, how she stood sturdy and barelegged in the dark grass occupied with her hair, as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment, in it’s meek, unselfish attitudes of poverty, in 1945.”
Quotes: "All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit."
Rating: Moderately good.

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