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Muriel Spark: A girl of slender means

By on March 30, 2013

It’s 50 years since the publication of the exquisite seventh novel by Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means.
Aye Write! marks this anniversary with a celebration of the Edinburgh writer, one of Britain’s greatest authors, through readings and discussion of her work by Willy Maley, Zoe Strachan, Alan Taylor and Louise Welsh, among others.
One of the highlights of the book festival, Muriel Spark – A Girl of Slender Means, is on April 13, @ 7.30 @ The Mitchell Theatre.
Maley – writer, playwright, critic and professor of renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow – is the author of Muriel Spark for Starters (Capercaillie Books, 2008), an excellent insight into the world of the luminous Spark.
Here, he has specially adapted this work for in recognition of the birthday of a masterpiece by Muriel Spark …
The Girls of Slender Means, 50 Years On – By Professor Willy Maley.
Between 1957 and 1963 Muriel Spark published seven novels, securing her status as a dazzling satirist of devastating wit. The sixth,The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was the shining and enduring achievement. Indeed, the Jean Brodie phenomenon meant that Spark’s other works – novels, short stories, poems, plays, critical essays, biographical studies – are not read as well or as widely as they should be. All of her twenty-two novels deserve our attention. Her seventh, The Girls of Slender Means (1963), is a case in point, a jewel-encrusted dagger of a novel that is read and taught far less than it should be. It deals with the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the small community of women that Spark found herself among in London at the time. Like most of her work it draws directly on her own experiences. It is a deceptively slim volume of immense density and texture that weighs on the mind like a stone. At the back of the book is an unexploded bomb that ticks ominously in a post-war world where everything is rationed, including love, life and time. It has the most exciting last twenty pages you’ll read, using the simple ingredients of a fire, a small window, and a measuring tape. Spark gives us another of those small social circles at which she excels, characters whose poverty, vanity, and absurdity are key to their complex humanity – castaways, nuns, schoolmates, writing groups, dinner parties.
One of the saddest, strongest and strangest lines in the novel comes when the narrator observes of one wide-hipped girl: “Jane had one smart thing in her wardrobe, a black coat and skirt made out of her father’s evening clothes”. There is a sense in this novel that in their baptism of fire these daughters are paying the price for a fight over fatherlands. They are also facing a few home truths on the home front, including the fact that most men are less than heroic. Of the would-be writer Nicholas Farringdon, Jane imagines fondly that “he would receive more pleasure and reassurance from a literary girl than simply a girl”. The narrator tells us, “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 of 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”.

 The two pieces of cloth that matter most at the end of the novel are the tape-measure with which the hour-glass Joanne for whom time is running out sizes up the other girls’ chances of escape as the flames climb the stairs, and the Schiaparelli dress that stylish, svelte Selina salvages from the inferno. Girls of slender means slip through the bathroom window, but not all have the hips to hope to make it through in the end. Spark has a habit of introducing in one novel as a minor note something taken up as a major theme in a future novel. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Spark had flagged up the death by fire of one of the Brodie set: “Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her”.

In The Girls of Slender Means the fire is both the novel’s crowning achievement and its burning heart. It has all the hallmarks of Spark’s searing style; a stiletto that sticks in the heart long after you put it down. Like the Brodie Set, the girls of slender means have ideas above their station, aspirations extinguished by forces beyond their control. In both novels – and in all her writing – Spark weaves a profoundly political view of the world out of everyday intimacies and intricacies. Don’t be fooled by the title or the number of pages – The Girls of Slender Means is a monumental work of art.

Adapted from Willy Maley, Muriel Spark for Starters (Edinburgh: Capercaillie Books, 2008).

Picture: Muriel Spark

* Muriel Spark – A girl of slender means, Aye Write!, April 13.

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