Lucky me! This is another gorgeous book sent to me for review by the Folio Society, and I am starting to think that I could very easily get used to reading books so beautifully presented … Generously spaced type makes these Folio books easy on the eye for reading, and the expensive papers and buckram boards make them a pleasure to hold in the hand. This new edition of The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark comes with a sparkling introduction by A.L. Kennedy, and it’s illustrated in a suitably quirky style (see here) by Lyndon Hayes, with an intriguing cover to match. (Yes, that is a scantily clad young woman climbing out of a skylight). The book is almost too gorgeous to put back into its slipcase after reading, but if I want to protect it properly as a collector’s item, that is what I ought to do.
I read and enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) a good while ago now, and while I enjoyed it very much, The Girls of Slender Means (1963) is now my favourite. It’s a slim novella of only 100 pages or so, but every word is perfectly placed and is generously allusive. Re-readings reveal all kinds of meaning beyond the sparkling wit and black humour. That’s why the book is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition) where it is said to be derived from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ long poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland. It took me a little while to work out why: it is because of the manner in which a woman goes to her death, unafraid, because she is sustained by her faith even when it has been sorely tested by fate.
A startling death in the present is the trigger for flashbacks to London at the time of the cessation of European hostilities in May 1945. The war in Japan is still raging but for the characters it is out of sight and out of mind as the infrastructure of wartime Britain segues into post-war austerity. ‘Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor’ begins Chapter One, when, a week after VE Day, Londoners looked out at the rubble and knew that things would never be the same again. There are hints of Britain’s multicultural future in the ‘infants of experimental variety, delightful in hue of skin and racial structure … born to the world in the due cycle of nine months‘ after the celebrations outside Buckingham Palace (p. 11), and the days when Englishmen could stamp about the world expecting deference to their ‘superior’ religion are gone too, as a religious convert is to discover when he tries proselytising in Haiti. But it is the world of women which has changed irrevocably, though they don’t know it yet.
As in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, women are the focus of this story. They all live together in a mansion now converted to a boarding house, elevated to shabby respectability by virtue of its name and antecedents: it was founded by a royal and thus bears the name of the May of Teck Club. It is distinguished by a ballroom long since converted to a dormitory which was the home of ‘the very youngest girls between eighteen and twenty who had not long moved out of the cubicles of school dormitories’ (p. 19), while above this are the shared bedrooms mostly inhabited by ‘young women in transit’ and two ‘spinsters’ in their fifties, Collie and Jarvie, who had somehow circumvented the rules by which the Club operates, ‘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’ (p.5). The second floor held the ‘old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster’s life, and those who would one day do so, but had not discerned the fact for themselves’. (p. 20)
Spark’s clever classifications of these women, ‘prim and pretty virgins’ and ‘bossy ones’ in their late 20s on the third floor, and the ‘most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls’ on the fourth floor, is emblematic of a sorting system which grades women as marriageable, or not. Such jobs as they have are desultory, and linked to their status in class-conscious Britain. Options include, for Jane Martin the would-be brainy one, a ‘literary-intellectual’ secretarial role for a publisher, and for Joanna Childe, self-employment giving elocution lessons (offering discounts for such members of the May of Teck who need help to modify a ‘regional’ accent.) Joanne, daughter of a country curate, is clinging to a hopeless love long after she could have had the love of another ‘who had made it clear that he wanted Joanna as the former curate had not’ (p. 16) The set also includes Dorothy Markham, who ‘could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter’ (p. 32); breathtakingly beautiful but callous Selina Redwood; and Anne Baberton – who has refined the art of mild insult in order ‘to indicate affectionate scorn’ when required (p. 8). There is also Greggie, another ‘spinster’ circumventing the rules – whose favourite anecdote concerns the unexploded bomb that she is convinced is in the garden.
Then (as now) there is a preoccupation with dieting, one practical application of which is that slim girls can slither through the lavatory skylight window to sunbathe (or hold assignations with next-door lovers) on the roof. (The trapdoor to the roof had been blocked up long ago after a now apocryphal intruder (burglar or lover) had ‘left behind him a legend of many screams in the night’ (p. 21). Jane Wright is excluded from these ventures because she is too plump, and Anne and Selina can only manage it if they slather themselves with soap or margarine, both of which are still rationed. Dorothy can do it too, but Nancy Riddle gets stuck, and so does Tilly, a visitor with a sense of fun.
Jane’s intellectual pretensions are some consolation for her unfortunate shape. She works for George Johnson, a dubious publisher with dubious finances, and this gains her entrée to literary soirées where she meets (and fancies) the poet Nicholas Farringdon. He uses her shamelessly to facilitate his attraction to Selina, to which Jane responds by abandoning her loyalty to Johnson who expects her to help him manipulate his authors into contracts more beneficial to him than to them.
Muriel Spark’s witty tone and black humour seduces the reader into believing that The Girls of Slender Means is merely a wry social commentary, but there is more to it than that. Scraps of poems signal religious overtones that might otherwise be opaque, and the apocalyptic ending reveals Selina to be perfidious indeed.
Carol Shields has written an illuminating piece for The Guardian about the difference between reading this in the 1960s as a young woman and again in 2003 – but there is a spoiler which I am glad I did not see before reading the book, so take care. I found an original 1963 NY Times review online as well, and found that interesting – but again, read it afterwards.
Or lash out and buy the Folio edition for yourself or someone you love!