A Century of Women, Muriel Spark

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Title: The Girls of Slender Means
Author: Muriel Spark
Published in 1963

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”

I’m pretty sure that I just don’t get Muriel Spark. This was my second book by her – the first being Loitering With Intent. I think that her acerbic wit is just a little too witty and a little too acerbic for me. I don’t even know what “comic-metaphysical entertainment” is, so I can’t comment on that characterization. This was my Classics Spin book.

The Girls of Slender Means is, itself, a slender book, but it operates on multiple levels. It’s told, in part, in flashbacks, but it wasn’t always clear when we were in flash back and when we were in present day. The ending was harrowing, but it also felt like it came out of nowhere. It’s an interesting slice of life of London during the war, and can be read for that alone. The deeper meanings eluded me, but I enjoyed it for what was on the surface.

Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Title: Loitering with Intent
Author: Muriel Spark
First published in 1981

Summary from Goodreads: “How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century,” Fleur Talbot rejoices. Happily loitering about London, c. 1949, with intent to gather material for her writing, Fleur finds a job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to the peculiar Autobiographical Association. Mad egomaniacs, hilariously writing their memoirs in advance—or poor fools ensnared by a blackmailer? Rich material, in any case. But when its pompous director, Sir Quentin Oliver, steals the manuscript of Fleur’s new novel, fiction begins to appropriate life. The association’s members begin to act out scenes exactly as Fleur herself has already written them in her missing manuscript. And as they meet darkly funny, pre-visioned fates, where does art start or reality end? “A delicious conundrum,” The New Statesman called Loitering with Intent.

I read this one as a Book of the Month for a Goodreads Group. I am pretty sure this is my first Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has definitely been on my radar screen for several years. I have a mental impression of Spark being an acerbic, mid-twentieth century British author who writes along the lines of Stella Gibbon. I don’t yet know if this is an accurate assessment, since I’ve not read enough of either of them to actually make a determination.

I spent probably 20 years reading primarily literary fiction. About five or six years ago – around the same time I joined Goodreads and started my first book blog, I rediscovered the joys of genre fiction, and have read much more of that in the last half decade. I read almost nothing that is considered “literary fiction,” like this book, at this point. Literary fiction can tend to be a bit dire, and literary fiction by men tends to focus so strongly on the sexual agonies of the middle-aged male and his angst over the aging (and the failing) of his penis that I avoid it like the plague because it’s so freaking boring.

However, I do love literary fiction by women – especially British women – that was written from approximately 1915 through the 1960’s. This one was actually published in 1981, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but it is convincingly set in the 1940’s, so it fits nicely into my wheelhouse. The narrator is Fleur Talbot, a young writer who gets mixed up with a very odd group of people at the same time that she is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.

As Fleur begins working for The Autobiographical Society as a secretary, she begins adding fictionalized, but far more interesting (i.e., salacious), bits to the boring autobiographies that are being submitted. When her boss, Quentin Oliver, realizes that she is not merely a good secretary, but is also a talented writer with significant flair, he concocts a plot that involves the wife of Fleur’s married lover, her publisher, and himself, to steal Fleur’s book. At the same time, Fleur becomes friends with Quentin’s mother, Edwina, who is a riot (remember Estelle Getty, from The Golden Girls. That). She is an elderly woman with zero fucks left to give, who thinks that her son is more or less a total tool, and who constantly torments him and his assistant, the noxious Beryl Tims, by, among other things, peeing on the floor.

My mental picture of Edwina Oliver

Anyway, things get pretty madcap, with break-ins and thefts and extortion. Fleur’s narration is darkly comic and the characterizations are sharp and unsparing. Overall, it’s a charming, if slight, piece of fiction about a frank, funny young woman in the 1940’s London publishing world.