The Public Image

The Booker short-listed The Public Image was Muriel Spark’s ninth novel, appearing just before the more experimental The Driver’s Seat in 1970. Of all her pointed (or perhaps pointing) titles it is perhaps the most on point as the novel dissect the lengths to which an English actress, Annabel Christopher, will go to protect her public image, and the lengths her husband, Frederick, will go to destroy it. It has a rather tame beginning for Spark as we meet Annabel in the all but empty house she is moving into in Rome. The house, bought to bolster her reputation as a film star (as her husband’s friend, Billy, comments, “Is this all in aid of your public image?”), also echoes her public life – showy, empty and, as she comments when Billy simply walks in, lacking in privacy:

“…she had observed before that when people were in the process of moving into a new house, and until the furniture had arrived and been put in place, everyone felt they could come and go, like the workmen and the removal men, without permission.”

The pared back setting also reflects the novel as a whole, which does not feel as richly present in place as the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the London of The Girls of Slender Means. Like a stage set, the house will also be, flashbacks aside, almost the only setting.

Annabel is unapologetically presented by Spark as a very ordinary woman who has been thrust into the spotlight of stardom. The detached cruelty of the narrative voice informs us:

“…she had no mean of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that thrives on the absence of a looking glass.”

As Frederick tells her, “You can’t act. You’re just lucky to get parts.” It is Frederick’s assumption of his intellectual superiority which leads him to believe he can ruin her by attacking her public image, but Annabel understands that he, too, is playing a part:

“…if only for effect, he had cultivated a private self-image of seriousness, and that she was a threat to it.”

In Annabel’s eyes it is just as much a “role” as the part he plays in the public image of their marriage, “impeccably formal by the light of day, voluptuously enamoured of each other under the cover of night.” In the novel, public image is not restricted to that presented to the media, but is also that we present to others, and ourselves.

Frederick’s plan to undermine the lie of her public image (their happy marriage) with another lie is the one true Sparkian touch in a novel where the satire can, at times, seem commonplace today. Having been missing for days, Annabel discovers that he has invited every friend, acquaintance and hanger-on to a house-warming party. As the guests pile in, much to Annabel’s bemusement, Frederick is meanwhile committing suicide, leaving behind a number of letters (including one to his dead mother) suggesting that he has taken his own life as a result of Annabel’s promiscuous behaviour (the word “orgy” is bandied about widely in the novel, as Spark, in typical fashion, reduces the most shocking aspect of Fredrick’s contrived scandal to amusement with repetition).

In what follows, Annabel attempts to immediately counteract Fredrick’s plot:

“I must say something to the press now, or it will be too late for the morning papers. Things like this are easily misconstrued, and I don’t want the world to get the wrong story.”

She gathers her neighbours around her in a scene we might expect an old master to paint rather than the press to photograph. Her director, Luigi, is doubtful (“Stop the orgy story? How do you stop the waves of the sea?”) but she is determined.

Spark allows Annabel a route to redemption through her baby. The fact that her son is referred to as “the baby” throughout suggests, at first, he is little more than a prop, and Annabel certainly uses him to prop up her public image and excuse herself from tiresome situations. Whether the initial cynicism is Annabel’s or the reader’s, Spark slowly reveals that, not only is her love genuine, but that it supersedes the need to retain her fame. The novel’s lyrical ending, where Annabel literally embraces her child, also acts as riposte to Frederick’s claim that she is “an empty shell”:

“Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.”

For all that Annabel is butt of her more obvious satire, Spark ultimately champions her against the attempts of the more ‘intelligent’ men around her to manipulate and control her life.

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9 Responses to “The Public Image”

  1. tonymess12 Says:

    I’ve been tossing up whether a re-read was in order (for some strange reason there’s been a resurgence in interest in this book), and I think you’ve convinced me. Thanks Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s the hundredth anniversary of Spark’s birth next year and all her novels are being reissued. I’m tempted to re-read them all – they’re short enough to make that possible!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    How appropriate that you were able to find a Spark to fit with the 1968 club! A lesser-known one as well. As you know, I have a few of her novels on the shelves just waiting to be read, but I’ll keep this one in mind for the future. It sounds quite cutting, especially towards the beginning…

    • 1streading Says:

      I hadn’t intended a re-read originally but with the publicity around the anniversary of her birth next year I thought it seemed a good opportunity. I’m glad I did!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I did actually pull this one out and add it to the pile, but never got to it. I’ve read a lot of Spark but I really need to read more!!!

  4. Simon T Says:

    I’m really pleased that someone read this one for 1968 Club – I read it a few years ago when I was blitzing through Spark novels when I was teaching a module on her – this one didn’t stand out particularly, but Spark is always great!

    • 1streading Says:

      I wasn’t going to, but the publicity around the hundredth anniversary of Spark’s birth next year convinced me to pick it up again – I’m glad I did.

  5. The Mandelbaum Gate | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in a three dimensional setting. It is worth noting that in the novels which immediately followed, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat, she would leave realism entirely […]

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