Muriel Spark's novels are deceptively simple. Really, I think they aren't simple at all, rather they have many hidden depths to them, and maybe that's part of the reason that Anthony Burgess chose The Girls of Slender Means as one of the "Best Modern Novels" in the London Sunday Times Review. This slim novel could (and should) easily be read more than once and mined for meaning, but I think my post will be a slimmed down version of just the basics (keeping with the "slender" theme). This isn't the first time I've encountered Spark's fiction, as I read (and reread) a couple of books a number of years ago and thought much the same then. I noted at the time that she had converted to Roman Catholicism and it had influenced her writing, and I see some of that influence here as well as she tackles the problem of good vs. evil once more. I enjoyed the story, but there is a complexity to it that makes it linger in my mind. Her work has a certain quirkiness to it, and it seems there is always something devastating about the story in the end. I've liked everything I've read by her, and I especially liked this novel.
The Girls of Slender Means has, if you read the story, double meaning. The girls of slender means are those who live in the May of Teck Club, the windows of which had been shattered three times during the War though the building had never been directly hit.
"The May of Teck Club exists 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."
But the girls and women who live in the club aren't just watching their budgets. They also keep a close eye on their calorie and fat intake and measure their slimness by whether they can slide through a narrow window and climb out onto the roof in order to sunbathe. Something not everyone has the waistline to achieve.
The story is told in flashback, though I wasn't sure at exactly what distance it was narrated, 1945 being "long ago when all the nice people in England were poor". The residents of the May of Teck club have scattered, and one of the young men who had taken an interest in some of the girls has been martyred in Haiti where he had been a Jesuit missionary. Jane Wright, a journalist, who knew Nicholas Farringdon when he was an anarchist author is researching his life with her sights set on the possibility that a book he wrote might now be published posthumously. When she was living at the May of Teck Club Jane was cultivating Nicholas as much as he was her. As a publishing assistant it was Jane's charge to find the weak spot in an author (no doubt with the idea he might then be paid less), but she took a liking to Nicholas. And like so many other men he took a liking to Selina Redwood, another May of Teck resident, whose poise and charm was the downfall of many a man.
The inhabitants of the May of Teck Club are a curious lot. Despite the "under thirty" rule, there are a few long-standing residents who seem to have arrived and never left. And within the club there is regimented order to who lives where--from the first floor which is curtained off into cubicles for the younger women to the top floor where the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls have their rooms. It seems a charming place to live, the sort of place that could only have existed through the war years. One visitor comments how much she likes it as it reminds her of being back in school.
Spark takes care to describe the personalities of the girls. Jane the writer, who begins the story, often asks for quiet so she can attend to her "brainwork", which includes writing letters to famous authors in order to get their signatures to sell for ready cash. Virtuous Joanna Childe, a country vicar's daughter gives elocution lessons and can often be heard throughout the house with her students. She's much admired by the other girls. There is Pauline Fox, one of the top-floor girls, who dines out in elegant gowns but returns home early after arguing with her boyfriend. And then there is Selina Redwood, who Nicholas sees as his ideal.
Once the story begins to move along it's through Nicholas's eyes that the reader views the girls of the May of Teck Club. He sees in Selina a sort of perfection. Her poise and charm and slenderness he romanticizes as being common to all the girls in the Club, and as someone who is socially and morally conscious and always questioning he thinks her attributes are also a reflection of these same ideas. Her slenderness being a badge of poverty, which in his mind makes for a worthy and ideal society. Only Selina is far more superficial and selfish and an action lacking an ounce of compassion will cause his final and formal conversion at the end of the story.
There's lots of good and interesting things going on in this story, and it's hard writing about them in a way that makes sense and still tempts you to try this novel, but it's well worth looking for if you're inclined to read her. Thanks to Simon and Harriet for organizing the Muriel Spark Reading Week (and Thomas for the cool badge). I wrote a little about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver's Seat here, if you're curious. I'm planning on starting A Far Cry From Kensington next, though I don't expect I'll have finished it or will be able to write about it before the end of the week. If you need any extra urging to read along, check out the cool covers of Muriel Spark's novels. I'm happy to have had a chance to revisit her work.