The Abbess of Crewe

As Muriel Sparks’ twelfth novel, The Abbess of Crewe, begins, Britain is immersed in the “national scandal of the nuns”:

“The motorway from London to Crewe is jammed with reporters”

The scandal bears many intentional, if superficial, resemblances to Watergate, which began in 1972, and finally resulted in Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the year the novel was published: wire-tapping, for example, is wide-spread in the abbey. Under the instructions of Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess, even the avenue of meditation is listening:

“The trees of course are bugged… How else can we operate now the scandal rages outside the walls?”

Behind this electronic subterfuge, as with Nixon, lies Alexandra’s desire to be elected. When one of her confidantes, Walburga, comments that her rival, Felicity, is at forty-two percent in the polls (typically, the novel retreats in the second chapter to the weeks before the election), she declares:

“It’s quite alarming… seeing that to be the Abbess of Crewe is my destiny.”

In this belief she shares something of the character of Jean Brodie, confusing her own personal wishes with fate. Like Brodie, she is a character both reprehensible and attractive, one it is difficult to feel Spark condemns completely. She believes herself superior with her “fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France, carved into the bones of her wonderful head.”

Felicity, on the other hand, represents a more modern form of Catholicism, roundly dismissed by Alexandra:

“Felicity will never see the point of faith unless it benefits mankind.”

Her weak spot is her affair with a Jesuit priest, Thomas, and Alexandra’s inner circle plot with the Jesuits against her:

“We could deal with Felicity very well… if you could deal with Thomas.”

The plot, of course, involves a break-in – to steal Felicity’s love letters, which she has secreted in her sewing box. Foolishly, the two Jesuit priests assigned this task take her thimble on a practise run to prove the theft is possible and, when they return for the letters, they are caught. Alexandra, in the meantime, is keen to retain what is now known as plausible deniability:

“You know, Walburga… from this moment on, you may not report such things to me.”

The novel does not really work as a satire – nor is it likely it is intended to. Spark generally finds immoral behaviour amusing and tends to mock rather than attack. As Alexandra puts it, “We are corrupt by our nature in the Fall of Man… O happy flaw!” Generally the novel is much more light-hearted than those which have preceded it, with jokes – “Gertrude should have been a man… With her moustache, you can see that” – and elements of farce, such as when a blackmail payment to the Jesuits takes place in a woman’s toilet requiring one of the priests to dress in drag. Gertrude, a perpetual missionary contacted by Alexandra for advice by phone (and always in a different location), might be seen as the voice of reason, but even she exists in an exaggerated reality, at one point negotiating a truce between a tribe of cannibals and a tribe of vegetarians.

Spark does not deal in problems and solutions, but in paradoxes and, as Gertrude tells Alexandra when asked “how one treats a paradox”:

“A paradox you live with.”

Paradoxes are everywhere in the text, even at the end, when Alexandra is told, “you may have the public mythology of the press and television but you won’t get the mythological approach from Rome. In Rome, they deal with realities.”

The Abbess of Crewe is a delight – clearly if a sitcom in a nunnery was required Spark should have been first in line to script it. And in Alexandra we have one of Spark’s most memorable characters: corrupt, cruel, and yet compelling, and, in the end (like Brodie), immune to guilt.

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5 Responses to “The Abbess of Crewe”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    “if a sitcom in a nunnery was required Spark should have been first in line to script it” – I *so* want to see that!!!!!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This does sound like a whole lot of FUN! Like Kaggsy, I loved that line about the sitcom in a nunnery – I now have vision of Muriel scripting a very English version of the American sitcom The Flying Nun.

    Where does this rate in your order of preference for Spark’s novels? I’d love to see a list of your top five.

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