The Girls of Slender Means

“Long ago in 1945,” begins and ends Muriel Spark’s 1963 novel The Girls of Slender Means, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Spark’s seventh novel is set squarely in the post-war period, beginning with the VE Day celebrations in May, and ending with VJ Day in August, but, as Norman Page points out, it opens with a “phrase that seems to blend the precision of history with the romantic vagueness of a fairy-tale.” The end of the war is recognised as a time of change:

“The next day everyone began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things.”

As a fellow poet quoting Cavafy to Nicholas Farringdon wonders, “What will become of us without Barbarians?” Things will certainly change considerably for Farringdon over the course of the novel, which tells the story of his conversion, but, as Spark typically cuts between past and present, his death is reported in the first few pages:

“Do you remember Nicholas Farringdon?… he’s been martyred… Martyred in Haiti. Killed. Remember he became a Brother – ”

In 1945 Farringdon has yet to meet the girls of slender means, the girls of the May of Teck Club, a hostel which “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.” He is introduced to the Club by Jane, a publisher’s assistant, who has been assigned him and his book, The Sabbath Notebooks , by her employer, George (at least that is the latest in a number of names he has answered to over the years).

“After a year George allowed he to do some of the detective work on new authors, which he was convinced was essential to the publishing trade, and to find out their financial circumstances and psychological weak spots so that he could deal with them to a publisher’s best advantage… She had now been given Nicholas Farringdon to work on.”

Like the Colonel, Farringdon “seemed to be in love with the entire club, Selina being the centre and practical focus of his feelings in this respect.” He is particularly admiring of Selina’s poise – she is described as “stepping ahead of him into the evening light like a racer into the paddock, with a high disregard of all surrounding noises” – and sets out to seduce her:

“All through the first three weeks of July Nicholas wooed Selina and at the same time cultivated Jane and others of the May of Teck Club.”

Selina is also at the centre of Farringdon’s conversion, a climax which Spark carefully prepares the reader for through a number of seemingly comic incidents: Greggie’s “suspicion that there was a second bomb that didn’t go off” when explaining the hollow in the garden; the Schiaparelli dress which the girls swap amongst themselves; and the bathroom window which allows access to the roof through which only a few of the (slenderest) girls can squeeze:

“Among the top floor members only Selina Redwood and Ann Baberton could manage to wriggle through the lavatory window, and Anne only managed it naked, having made her body slippery with margarine.”

It is on the roof that Farringdon will make love to Selina, and later “witness that act of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntary to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.”

As usual, Spark’s extensive cast are portrayed with minimalist perfection. Joanna Childe, a rector’s daughter who teaches elocution, is characterised as:

“…the poetic essence of all tall, fair rector’s daughters who never used a scrap of make-up, who had served tirelessly day and night in parish welfare… who before that had been Head Girl and who never wept that anyone knew or could imagine, being stoical by nature.”

Jane is “fat but intellectually glamorous” using her ‘brain work’ as an excuse to indulge her appetite. (“She ate a square of chocolate to keep her brain going till supper time.”) A minor character, Pauline Fox, leaves every night to have dinner with Jack Buchanan; in fact, she simply circles the park in a taxi. When she is discovered returning early she exclaims, “Oh! Don’t talk to me. We’ve had a row.” Like a great caricaturist, Spark can sketch a distinct and recognisable figure with only a few lines.

Lest we forget, however, amid the comedy we find frequent references to the cost of living, to getting by (Jane’s infallible method of getting rid of unwanted intrusions is to ask for a loan of 15 shillings). In contrast, the text is littered with the lines of poetry Joanna recites to her pupils, each random recitation eerily apposite on closer consideration. And slowly, unnoticeably, Spark tightens the tension towards the novel’s violent epiphany. It is a novel which feels so perfectly formed, a word out of place might change it; so perfectly formed we might even forgive the author for rewarding the wicked and punishing the good.

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11 Responses to “The Girls of Slender Means”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Fabulous review! This is one of my favourite of Spark’s novels, and your comments leave me keen to revisit it. I loved the scenes with the girls in the May of Teck, taking advantage of the Schiaparelli dress for a date and squeezing through the bathroom window to sunbathe on the roof. That said, I can’t say that I fully understood what Spark was trying to do with the Nicholas Farringdon element of the storyline. Do you have any more thoughts on that?

    • 1streading Says:

      I think Farringdon is central to the novel as it’s the story of his conversion to Catholicism, i.e. he becomes a missionary after. Selina’s selfishness seems to cause this.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant Like Jacqui this has to be one of my favourite Sparks – such wonderful writing and characterisation.

  3. Cathy746books Says:

    She has a fantastic way of capturing her characters no matter how big the cast.

  4. Melissa Beck Says:

    Would you believe that I’ve never read any Muriel Sparks!? I really need to fix that.

  5. banff1972 Says:

    Such an enticing review, Grant! I’m interested in that quasi-fairy tale opening line: uncannily reminiscent of the first and last lines in an oblique war novel from 1945, Henry Green’s Loving. I’ve been meaning to get around to more Spark for ages. I think this is the one I shall read next.

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