Perhaps you know Muriel Spark from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Thanks to the film for which Maggie Smith won a 1969 Academy Award, it’s her most well-known novel.
But not, certainly, her only novel. I had read several others, most memorably, to me at least Memento Mori. I recently picked up another, The Girls of Slender Means, read bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, finished it last night, and will probably re-read it today.
It is a novella, really – only 142 pages long in the edition I have – but it’s dense and complex, spiraling down, then back up. To me, it’s the ideal of a “religious” novel, more thought-provoking and real than the dreck that squats comfortably in the reassuring “inspirational” section.
(Spark was a Catholic convert)
As such, it’s difficult to summarize. It also would not be fair to summarize the novel in full because much of its power comes from surprise and even shock. It’s quite powerful in that way.
But let’s just say this:
The novel is set in a residence for single women, the events occurring in 1945, between VE and VJ Days, with a few flashbacks and flash forwards, which can be confusing – it’s why I had to re-read the first twenty pages or so probably three times.
The women are, as the title indicates, of “slender means” – but, as Spark writes, in her distant, vaguely acerbic, perhaps ironic way in the opening paragraph, in 1945, “…all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Slender, though, has other meanings. During the climax of the novel, the size of the characters impacts their potential to survive. In addition, I think it has meaning related to personal character.
There are a few older, long-term residences, but most are young, in their twenties. They work, date, and generally look forward to post-war life, which has not quite arrived.
At the center are Jane Wright, who works in publishing and is not slender; Joanna Copeland, the daughter of an Anglican rector who teaches elocution; and Selina, a slim beauty. Jane brings a self-proclaimed anarchist poet, Nicholas Farringdon, into their lives.
Very quickly, in a flash-forward, we hear news about Nicholas, news that the now-journalist Jane is spreading through phone calls to her former housemates, now scattered far and wide: she has heard that he was killed in Haiti, and, most surprisingly to her, killed in his role as some sort of Catholic missionary.
I am not going to even attempt to summarize the remaining plot of the book, for I think it would spoil the effect if you do choose to read it. Just know that if you begin reading this expecting a homely, cozy little slice-of-life easy read…that’s not what you find. Spark is cutting and direct in her observations of her mostly self-absorbed characters who, either because of wartime survival mode or simply human nature, lead lives mostly disengaged from their raison d’etre – a subject about which Jane Wright has settled on as a useful, sophisticated-sounding question for the authors put in her charge.
What I will say, though, is that if are going to read it, take a look at Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland before you do – or at some point in the reading. This webpage gives an apt, accessible analysis that is helpful in understanding Sparks’ novel, for the poem weaves in and out of the events of the story as Joanna is heard to recite and teach snippets of it throughout. In fact, I don’t think many reviewers understand how important Hopkins’ poem is to the book – upon reflection, it almost seems like a re-telling of the story of these nuns who were driven from their home by evil, then shipwrecked in a way that might rob them of physical life, but through which God shows his power to save, re-create and rescue in a cosmic way. The fact that the climax of both novel and poem involve a small, barely accessible window and a woman of faith calling out to God for his presence in the midst of imminent collapse lead me to think it is quite intentional.
But here’s the thing that’s so fascinating.
The Girls of Slender Means is, in part – in great part – a conversion story. Most conversion stories seem to hang on the converted witnessing good. That’s not the case here. Here, the turning point is a character’s witnessing a gesture that the world might see as odd or even quirky, but, in the context, is really expressive of profound darkness of spirit. Early in the book, before we know what happened, this, to the world, meaningless or even understandable gesture is described as an “action of savagery so extreme…” It’s a shock to the system, to see one you had idealized as the embodiment of earthly beauty, with surely the potential to be more, prove you wrong.
It’s a conversion confirmed by an even more shocking final scene, in which we see what the cheery among us might describe as Spark’s darkness, but which is really just realism. We can celebrate a moment of earthly peace as raucously and optimistically as we like, but even in the midst of these high hopes, original sin still lurks in the crowds, having its way, the ship is still sinking, the fires are still burning, and perhaps the most radical, powerful response to all of it is to stay in it, take it in, but now in a different way, in touch with a intuition of something else, something more for which we were made and are being gathered up for, an intuition that leads us, in the witnessing, without even understanding why and despite ourselves, to give a sign that this is not all there is, that things are not what they seem. A sign, simply, of a cross.