The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Though Jean Brodie deserves her place among literature’s icons, my favourite Spark character features in her 1960 novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Dougal Douglas, despite the London location, and as the name rather gives away, is also Scottish, having recently graduated from Edinburgh University and claiming at one point to possess Highland blood (and second sight). Brodie famously descended from Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Douglas owes at least something to Gil-Martin, the shape-shifting devil from Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Though he is not quite so emphatic in his intention to damn souls, he acts as an agent of chaos and temptation influencing the behaviour of many around him.

The novel begins, as so often with Spark, with a flash forward as Humphrey attempts to speak to his erstwhile fiancée, Dixie, only to be told by her mother, Mavis, to “Get away from here you dirty swine.” It is soon revealed that the cause of Mavis’ anger is Humphrey’s decision to answer ‘No’ at the wedding ceremony, something, we are told, that “wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here.”

Dougal’s diabolical credentials are scattered liberally, and comically, throughout the novel. We are told he poses on a grave “like an angel-devil with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile,” and he will tell a number of characters to feel the bumps on his head where he has had his horns removed, though denying he is the Devil himself:

“I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

His powers of persuasion are immediately linked to his ability to change shape, as he does when being interviewed by Mr Druce of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:

“Dougal changed his shape and became a professor… Dougal leaned forward and became a television interviewer.”

(Dougal’s appointment is the result of a desire to hire an ‘arts man’ – we might wonder if it is the dark arts). Much of this treads a fine line between creepy and comic, and Spark indulges in a shape-shifting extravaganza when he visits a dance hall with a dustbin lid:

“Next, Dougal sat on his haunches and banged a message out on a tom-tom. He sprang up and with the lid on his head was a Chinese coolie eating melancholy rice. He was an ardent cyclist, crouched over handlebars and pedalling uphill with the lid between his knees.”

The other dancers are divided in their opinion of Douglas’ entertainment, just as he divides the community of Peckham Rye as a whole. While Humphrey and Merle, Druce’s secretary and lover, are very much on his side; Dixie and Trevor Lomas are set against him from the start. What is certain is the influence Dougal exerts on the other characters. Humphrey is seen to copy him unconsciously, “his head lolled on the back of the chair, copying one of Dougal’s habitual poses.” Dixie complains, “He’s putting ideas in your head.” Merle, too, is aware of his influence:
“You’ve unsettled me, Dougal, since you came to Peckham. I shall have a nervous breakdown.”

Dougal’s unsettling presence raises questions of how we should live our lives. Dixie’s desire to save up “a certain sum” before they marry irritates Humphrey (“It’s all she can think of, saving up to get married.”) and contrasts with her mother’s life when she was younger:

“Saving and pinching to get married, you’re losing the best time of your life.”

Numerous characters – Merle, Druce, Mavis – talk about ‘living a lie’. Dougal’s approach, on the other hand, seems care-free and capricious: “Oh, everything’s easy for you,” Merle tells him, “You’re free.” Tasked with reducing absenteeism he tells everyone to take time off (“Everyone should take Mondays off.”) He happily goes for the same job at a rival company simply reversing his name and becoming Douglas Dougal. Meanwhile he is also ghost-writing Maria Cheeseman’s autobiography, adapting stories from his “human research” in Peckham into her life:

“If you only wanted a straight autobiography you should have got a straight ghost. I’m crooked.”

As with Brodie, his charismatic disregard for the rules ultimately leads to violence. The wedding scandal, as it turns out, is not the worst of the chaos he leaves in his wake. Dougal, then, again like Brodie, leaves us both awed and appalled, as Spark recognises the damage he induces while delighting in the way he shakes things up. As the final lines suggest, if nothing else, he forces us to see things differently.

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6 Responses to “The Ballad of Peckham Rye”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    This is one of the Sparks I have on my shelf that I’m most keen to read. And I do like your description of her treading the fine line between comic and creepy – lovely!

  2. heavenali Says:

    I have this tbr too, I hope to get to it in the next couple of months.

    • 1streading Says:

      I really enjoyed being reacquainted with it, but I must admit I’m looking forward to reading Spark’s later work most of which I’ve read only once and can’t really remember.

  3. 3, 2, 1, Go! – The Three Rs Book Blog Says:

    […] reading a range of blog posts this month. One that stood out for me is 1streading’s post The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark. I talk a little more about Muriel Spark below, mentioning my rekindled interest in […]

  4. The Takeover | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] a crime novelist. Violence has always been just beneath the surface in her work (take, for example, The Ballad of Peckham Rye), but her Italian novels in particular seethe with criminality and corruption. Rather than a cast […]

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