A Far Cry from Kensington

Muriel Spark’s eighteenth novel, A Far Cry from Kensington (originally published in 1988) returns us to the world of publishing in post-war Britain which we saw as recently as 1981’s Loitering with Intent. Since Spark’s debut, The Comforters, writers of various kinds have featured in her work, though the artistic process is rarely fore-grounded; here the novel is narrated, not by the successful but flawed novelist Emma Loy, but by Mrs Hawkins, an editor at a failing publishers (Spark, of course, was editor of Poetry Review between 1947 and 1949). When Mrs Hawkins offers literary advice it is of a practical nature – the suggestion, for example, of acquiring a cat to aid concentration. Advice is something that she is regularly required to dispense as:

“There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidence.”

The appellation ‘Mrs Hawkins’ itself is an indication that others treat her as a motherly figure despite the fact she is not yet thirty, but it is her plumpness that particularly invites those who know her, however briefly, to share their problems.

In this sense, Mrs Hawkins herself is a forgery in a novel of fakes. We quickly learn that Martin York, of the publishing firm Ullswater and York, where Mrs Hawkins initially works, “was to go to prison for multiple forgeries.” Like all forgers, he places the greatest importance on appearance:

“If it’s widely enough believed that you have money and wealth, Mrs Hawkins, it is the same as having it.”

But the greatest fake in the novel is Mrs Hawkins’ nemesis, Hector Bartlett. Bartlett is a would-be writer who has attached himself to the novelist Emma Loy. Mrs Hawkins regards even his professed origins as inauthentic:

“Hector Barlett claimed at every opportunity… to be upper class, to the effect that I presumed him to be rather low-born.”

It is aspirations as a writer, however, which most offend her. When he approaches her in Green Park one day, she cannot help but voice her true opinion:

“I don’t know what got into me, for I said, not to myself as usual, but out loud, ‘Pisseur de copie!’”

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Though she may have been able to deny a single such outburst, which Bartlett is happy not to hear, she repeats the epithet at the end of their unwelcome conversation, and admits it once again when Emma Loy phones, “very worried about Hector” to ask her, “What exactly did you do to him this morning?” Offending Emma Loy ensures Mrs Hawkins loses her job, albeit from a publishing house which is soon declared bankrupt, but Bartlett continues to haunt her, both professionally and, more secretly, at the boarding house where she is staying. Mrs Hawkins never changes her opinion, her remark becoming one of the most striking repetitions of the novel, a refusal to shy from the truth (at one point she says, “It feels like preaching the gospel”) regardless of the consequences. This example of honesty stands in marked contrast to the various dishonest plots and schemes which are unearthed around it.

The first of these begins with an anonymous letter threatening Wanda, a Polish seamstress who lives in the same building as Mrs Hawkins. The letter is followed by a phone call, and the effect on Wanda is visible:

“Wanda was still haunted; all her old confidence and tranquillity had left her.”

Spark has always been interested in blackmail, and here, particularly, it is used to contrast the way people treat each other, blackmail being an extreme form of using others to our own end. This is in marked contrast to Mrs Hawkins who finds jobs for her now unemployed colleagues from Ullswater and York. Another dishonest scheme is the Box, or radionics, in which samples of a person hair and blood are supposedly used to cure them:

“So far as I could see it was as devoid of any functional possibility as one of those children’s toy telephones with which they go through the motions of dialling a number and talking, but never get anywhere.”

In comedic fashion, Mrs Hawkins gets her reward, transforming into a woman half her size by eating only half portions, no longer Mrs Hawkins but Nancy, and once again a romantic lead rather than a sympathetic aunt, a change that is not to everyone’s taste:

“You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious.”

A Far Cry from Kensington is a gentler Spark novel, lacking the violence of her continental novels, and with a central character who is entirely sympathetic. It still contains the strangeness that feels true precisely because it is unlikely that is so typical of her work, for example the man paid to stare up at the offices of Ullswater and York to make them feel shame for their debts, or the firm of Mackintosh and Toolley where all the staff are hired on the basis of possessing some kind of disability. Evil remains, however, in the irrepressible egocentricity of Hector Barlett who, of course, is not as harmless as he might first appear. Spark may have mellowed, but she has not gone soft.

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6 Responses to “A Far Cry from Kensington”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I thought I’d read this one pre-blog, but I obviously haven’t because I can recognise nothing of this! I love the sound of it though – Spark’s strangeness and the bizarre people and events in her stories are just wonderful!

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    Not read enough of her books this one appeals I see the reissue them last year so may have a look at trying another I did like the last I read by her

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    This is one of my favourite Spark novels, possibly because it seems a little gentler or more compassionate than some of her others. That said, it still feels very ‘Sparkian’ in style, a world where certain aspects feel slightly skewed or off-kilter!

    • 1streading Says:

      I agree – there’s always some element of strangeness. This novel is particularly amusing as it takes a wry look at the publishing industry – which I suspect has not changed as much as we might think!

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